Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Smith's absence music to Crusaders' ears

Highlanders fullback Ben Smith
Highlanders fullback Ben Smith

The best piece of news Todd Blackadder received this week, after Sam Whitelock's return to fitness from a calf problem, must have been the withdrawal from tomorrow's match of Highlanders fullback Ben Smith.

It will be the first time in two years Smith has not been available for the Highlanders. A leg infection, apparently suffered during the team's defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney at the weekend, kept him in hospital across the Ditch for three nights, coach Jamie Joseph saying he couldn't consider the 28-year-old for selection after that.

There is no underestimating the blow this is to the Highlanders, who have relied time and again on their evasive man at the back, nicknamed The Ghost for his ability to drift through defences.

He, along with Malakai Fekitoa, kept the Highlanders in their first match against the Crusaders this season, a cliffhanger under the Dunedin roof which would have quickly slipped away from the home side after halftime but for the urgent interventions of the All Blacks centre and fullback. Now, there will be more pressure on Fekitoa to provide the momentum for the Highlanders, and he showed against the Waratahs that he can be susceptible to a rushing defence which takes away his space.

Blackadder, who has told his team to focus on a win, rather than worry about a bonus point which will strengthen their claim for second place on the table ahead of the Sharks, will want that pressure to continue.

"You put your shoulders and arms around his legs and put him on the ground," Blackadder said. "I thought the Waratahs gave us a real insight into how to shut him down. You just have to get up and knock him over."

Joseph has replaced Smith at the back with Trent Renata and, interestingly, has decided on Hayden Parker ahead of Lima Sopoaga at first-five. Sopoaga didn't have a good start against the Crusaders in Dunedin but is a much better attacking threat than Parker.

The Highlanders, in fourth place overall and almost certain to have a place in the playoffs, could win the New Zealand conference if they beat the Crusaders with a bonus point.

In another injury blow, prop Ma'afu Fia was ruled out after suffering a recent seizure for which he is undergoing tests.

Whitelock's inclusion is the only change to the Crusaders team which beat the Blues last weekend.

Blackadder said: "We're going to have to put in the performance of the season to come out on top, and that is exactly what the team has committed to doing."

Crusaders v Highlanders


Christchurch, 7.35pm tomorrow
Israel Dagg
Kieron Fonotia
Ryan Crotty
Dan Carter
Nemani Nadolo
Colin Slade
Andy Ellis
Kieran Read (c)
Matt Todd
Jordan Taufua
Sam Whitelock
Dominic Bird
Owen Franks
Ben Funnell
Wyatt Crockett

Trent Renata
Richard Buckman
Malakai Fekitoa
Shaun Treeby
Patrick Osborne
Hayden Parker
Aaron Smith
Nasi Manu (c)
Shane Christie
Elliot Dixon
Joe Wheeler
Tom Franklin
Chris King
Liam Coltman
Kane Hames

Reserves:

Crusaders: Corey Flynn, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala, Jimmy Tupou, Luke Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Johnny McNicholl.

Highlanders: Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, JP Koen, Josh Bekhuis, Gareth Evans, Fumiaki Tanaka, Lima Sopoaga, Phil Burleigh.

- NZ Herald

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