The Crusaders face a rare experience this week; a trip to a city where they lost their last game, but they travel to Dunedin and their match against the Highlanders with the extra security of a returning Sam Whitelock and prop Owen Franks, who will celebrate his 150th match.

They also travel in the knowledge that the Highlanders are confident that their pack will provide not just a stern challenge to the defending champions, who are on a 19-match winning streak, but that they will "dominate" them should they execute properly.

It was Highlanders lock Josh Dickson, a good performer last weekend against the Hurricanes, who broke away from the usual platitudes of rugby-speak and issued the challenge, and while the Crusaders kept a low-key response today, there is no doubt they will want to prove a point at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger has named six forwards on the reserves bench as he prepares for an onslaught up front, and Dickson's words may have lit a fire under the Crusaders forwards, who have the inexperienced George Bower starting at loosehead prop following injuries to Joe Moody and Tim Perry.


"Every team has to go in with confidence," said captain Whitelock before his first game of the season. "They're a good pack and will be trying to build on the success they've had this year. They'll be excited by that. That's our challenge. We have to go down to their home patch."

Franks said: "It's what you expect every week and so they should - they've earned the right to talk like that."

Such was the Highlanders' performance up front against Hurricanes in Wellington that this could be the toughest challenge of the season so far for the Crusaders, who last lost 12 months ago to the same opposition.

Coach Scott Robertson, in acknowledging the Highlanders had paid his side's pack respect by naming a 6-2 forwards split on the bench rather than the more orthodox 5-3, said: "I know Josh and I'm sure he didn't mean it that way but you guys in the media jump on things pretty quick. Look, 'dominate' is a pretty strong word so we'll see on Saturday."

It all adds fuel to a highly-anticipated encounter under the roof in the deep south. Both teams play with width and freedom but the signs that Mauger's men will actively target the Crusaders' set piece and breakdown suggest they know they won't win by simply running the ball.

All Black Whitelock's return could hardly have come at a better time – especially with his Crusaders and national teammate Scott Barrett putting in such a busy start to the year.

Barrett is due for a rest next week when the Crusaders play the Waratahs in Sydney, as is Richie Mo'unga.

"It's good in a couple of ways," Robertson said of Whitelock's return. "We've grown a couple of other leaders while he's been away and he's keen and energetic and as good a nick physically as he's been for a few years.


"When Skip first said he'd be away you think 'well, how are we going to deal with it' because he's been a big part of our success but he's been working behind the scenes and he comes back with great energy."

Whitelock said his priority would be to get through as many minutes as he can, adding that he felt the toll of a busy year while with the All Blacks in November.

"I felt in a pretty good space but lacked a little bit of that last five or 10 per cent especially in those first couple of steps out of a breakdown or getting off the ground," he said. "If you take that away for a player that can be frustrating but it's in the past now and I'm pretty happy."

Crusaders team to play Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm is: 15 David Havili, 14 Braydon Ennor, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower.

Reserves: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Harry Allen, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quentin Strange, 20 Tom Sanders 21 Ere Enari, 22 Brett Cameron, 23 Will Jordan.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Sio Tomkinson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (cc), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Whetton, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone.

Reserves: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Dillon Hunt, 22 Folau Fakatava, 23 Marty Banks.