Two of the tournament’s most entertaining sides go head-to-head when the Highlanders host the defending champions, the Crusaders, in Dunedin on Saturday.
The Highlanders have impressed under the guidance of new head coach Aaron Mauger and are unbeaten after two matches, which they won in fine style against the Chiefs and Stormers.
Both those fixtures were played in Dunedin and they will be quietly confident of making it three out of three in front of their fanatical home support although they take on a Crusaders side who will be smarting after losing to the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend.
Despite that defeat, the tournament’s defending champions will have a semblance of confidence ahead of this encounter as they beat the Highlanders twice during the league phase of last year’s competition as well as in their quarter-final in Christchurch.
The Crusaders have also won nine of their last 11 games against the Highlanders with the men from Dunedin’s victories registered in 2015 and 2016. The champions will be out to avoid consecutive losses in the regular season for the first time since April 2015.
The Highlanders have won their last eight matches on home turf – the last time they won more in succession at home was a 13-game glut from 2000 to 2002. Both sides boast potent attackers throughout their ranks although the Crusaders suffered a setback when Ryan Crotty was ruled out due to concussion.
However, they were boosted when their captain, All Blacks lock Samuel Whitelock, came through concussion protocols and was ruled fit for this match.
The home side, meanwhile, will rely heavily on their All Blacks back-line quartet of Waisake Naholo, Lima Sopoaga, Ben and Aaron Smith, who have all been in fine form in their previous fixtures.
Team news: Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger has made a couple of changes with Aki Seiuli getting his first start of the year in this fixture.
Powerful Counties front-row, Kalolo Tuiloma, earns his debut appearance on the bench and Elliot Dixon returns to the 23 as loose forward cover, as does co-captain Ash Dixon. In the backs Tevita Li is back on the left wing, reuniting with Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo, while Kayne Hammington rotates in for Josh Renton at scrum-half reserve.
Meanwhile, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has named an unchanged forward pack for the match, and there are just two changes in the backs from the side that took the field in their loss to the Hurricanes in Wellington last weekend.
Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall will rotate this week, with Hall taking a spot on the bench and Drummond to wear the number nine jersey in what will be his 50th appearance for the Crusaders. The only other change sees Tim Bateman step in to the starting line-up at inside centre in place of Ryan Crotty.
2017: Crusaders won 17-00 in Christchurch (quarter-final)
2017: Crusaders won 25-22 in Christchurch
2017: Crusaders won 30-27 in Dunedin
2016: Highlanders won 34-26 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-25 in Christchurch
2015: Crusaders won 26-20 in Dunedin
2014: Crusaders won 34-8 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 32-30 in Dunedin
2013: Crusaders won 40-12 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Kalolo Tulioma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Chris King, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Manasa Mataele
Date: Saturday, March 17
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)