Elliot Dixon's Highlanders teammates played the Crusaders at Centennial Park in Oamaru today, a two-hour bus ride from both Dunedin and Christchurch but a step back in time to a muddy pitch, an afternoon kick-off, and a bright red caravan selling hot dogs adjacent to the sideline.

It was old-school, and there is a fair bit of that about Dixon, a 26-year-old about to make his test debut under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday; from the insulation tape which he wraps around his head to his all-action style in the No 6 jersey for the Highlanders which sees him replacing Jerome Kaino to play Wales.

His breakthrough has come after six years in the south, Dixon making the move from Canterbury after deciding he wouldn't see much game time behind the likes of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Matt Todd.

It paid dividends. Last year he was a crucial element to the Highlanders winning their maiden championship, his crucial try a snapshot of what he is all about - determination and perseverance - in spite of the odds.

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"I didn't really think about [making All Blacks] too much [last year], I was just thinking more about playing well for the Highlanders and then this year it was a big goal for me; to play rugby consistently week in and week out and see where it got me," Dixon said.

There is no doubt that Kaino remains an integral part of the All Blacks' loose forward trio along with Read, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, but Dixon - and fellow new boy Liam Squire on the reserves bench - deserve their shot, a reward for their performances as well as a depth-builder for coach Steve Hansen.

Dixon is probably slightly quicker with Kaino, and while he might not bring the same intimidation factor around the ruck, his ball-carrying and ability range wide will add a new element to the All Blacks' attack.

One of those to congratulate Dixon on his achievement was Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph. "He sent me a wee text which was good. He just said to enjoy and that it was going to be over pretty quick so just give it everything.

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"He's been good for me; I've had him for six years at the Highlanders, my first Super Rugby coach. It was pretty tricky the first couple of years with him but I think me and him and grown up together a lot and it's been awesome to have him as a mentor and a coach."

Joseph, a former All Black loose forward, struggled for results at the Highlanders before his spectacular success with the team last year, a journey which also seems to have brought the best out of Dixon.

"I've started to get in the best shape of my life and it's taken quite a few years," Dixon said. "Consistent rugby is key, I think."