The Highlanders have Ben Smith back for their quarter-final in Christchurch but the Crusaders have been able to select an All Black tight five following the return from injury of both Owen Franks and Codie Taylor, a state of affairs which should hand the advantage firmly to the home side.

In fact, it is the first time this season Franks, Taylor and Joe Moody have started together, and with Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock in the scrum behind them the pieces appear to be falling into place once again for head coach Scott Robertson, who also has an embarrassment of riches in his backline.

With George Bridge and Sevu Reece the starting wings and Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue in the midfield, there is no room in the starting XV for the in-form Braydon Ennor and no room in the match-day 23 for the talented 21-year-old Will Jordan, who has just re-committed to the Crusaders for another three years.

The Crusaders are fresh from their bye week, but after watching the Highlanders thrash the Waratahs in Invercargill and then cling on to a top-eight position as other results went their way, there is a feeling in the south that the visitors are worthy finalists who have an emotional primer in the form of fullback Smith's return from a hamstring injury in his last weeks at the franchise.


"A lot of people thought they might not be in there so they've almost got that nothing-to-lose feel which is pretty dangerous to play against," Franks said after getting the all-clear from a shoulder injury. "Personally, I think they've got the best scrum in the competition so it's going to be an awesome challenge for us."

Ben Smith of the Highlanders celebrates a try. Photo / Photosport
Ben Smith of the Highlanders celebrates a try. Photo / Photosport

Normally an upbeat character, Crusaders coach Robertson was uncharacteristically quiet in today's press conference, presumably because of what's at stake and possibly because he wants to give the opposition absolutely nothing in terms of extra motivation.

He agreed with Franks that the Highlanders' scrum is one of the best around. "It's going to be a hell of a contest," he said, adding Franks and Taylor, who is returning from a broken finger, could have played last week.

"They probably could have played in the bye week, so to give them an extra week is great timing. They've trained well, they're keen, they're fresh as you can get."

Franks said of his return: "I'm pretty pumped with the outcome to be honest. It's feeling really good. I think whenever you avoid surgery it's a win.

"I'm glad the medical staff here backed me and got me back on the field."

Robertson acknowledged there were some difficult decisions to make around the selection of his backline. "It's hard to name names but Braydon Ennor deserves special mention. His form has been incredible, but with George Bridge there and Jack Goodhue at centre … it's tough on Braydon but the impact he provides us is incredible. That was probably the toughest one for us."

This will be only the second time the two sides have met this season as their first scheduled game in Dunedin in March was cancelled in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shootings. A month later in Christchurch the Crusaders comfortably won 43-17.


The challenge for the Crusaders as they seek their third title in a row under Robertson will be to resume the form they displayed in thrashing the Rebels 66-0 before their week off. For the Highlanders there will be a sense of freedom in knowing they were perhaps lucky to be making the trip to Christchurch and, as Franks noted, they could be all the more dangerous for it.

Crusaders team to play Highlanders at Christchurch Stadium on Friday, kick-off 7.35pm is: 15. David Havili, 14. Sevu Reece, 13. Jack Goodhue, 12. Ryan Crotty, 11. George Bridge, 10. Richie Mo'unga, 9. Bryn Hall, 8. Kieran Read, 7. Matt Todd, 6. Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5. Sam Whitelock ©, 4. Scott Barrett, 3. Owen Franks, 2. Codie Taylor, 1. Joe Moody.

Reserves: 16. Andrew Makalio, 17. Tim Perry, 18. Michael Alaalatoa, 19. Luke Romano, 20. Jordan Taufua, 21. Mitchell Drummond, 22. Mitchell Hunt, 23. Braydon Ennor.

Highlanders: 15. Ben Smith, 14. Waisake Naholo, 13. Rob Thompson, 12. Teihorangi Walden, 11. Patelesio Tomkinson, 10. Josh Ioane, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Luke Whitelock ©, 7. James Lentjes, 6. Liam Squire, 5. Tom Franklin, 4. Jackson Hemopo, 3. Tyrel Lomax, 2. Liam Coltman, 1. Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Reserves: 16. Ash Dixon, 17. Ayden Johnstone, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Josh Dickson, 20. Shannon Frizell, 21. Kayne Hammington, 22. Marty Banks, 23. Elliot Dixon.