And just like that Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa is back for its second edition and it all kicks off in Dunedin on Friday night, with the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders.
We were treated to two cracking southern derbies in the competition last year and we expect nothing less from the first battle of 2021 at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Match Details: Friday 26 February, 7.05pm, Forsyth Barr Stadium Dunedin
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Won: Crusaders 28, Highlanders 11, 1 draw
Last match: Crusaders 32 Highlanders 22 in Christchurch on 9 August 2020
ALL BLACKS AVAILABLE FROM THE GET-GO
We’ll see 12 All Blacks in action in Friday’s opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium, with the Crusaders naming a stacked line-up for the encounter. It’s great that fans will be able to see All Blacks in action from the opening round and there will be plenty of exciting battles right across the park. Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett is back in the starting line-up having missed last year’s competition with a foot injury, while new All Black Cullen Grace gets the nod at No 8 against Marino Mikaele-Tu’u who had an impressive 2020 campaign with the Highlanders. It’s always a great tussle between the halfbacks, and Aaron Smith up against Bryn Hall promises to be a good one.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
Māori All Black Billy Harmon made the move down south from the Crusaders seeking more game time and he’ll get his first test against his old team under the roof. The talented loosie comes up against another rising flanker in Tom Christie. Highlanders coach Tony Brown has given new recruit Solomon Alaimalo his first crack for the club at fullback. Having got so used to seeing him on the wing for the Chiefs, it will be intriguing to see how he goes in the 15 jersey.
RETURN OF LIAM SQUIRE & BRYN EVANS
Both Squire and Evans will provide a huge amount of experience off the bench on Friday. Liam Squire returns to the Highlanders after a season away playing in Japan, while two-Test All Black Bryn Evans has been overseas since 2011. The 36 year-old previously played three times for the Blues and 25 times for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby.
The Crusaders have won nine of their last 10 completed Super Rugby matches against the Highlanders, including their last six in succession.
Aaron Smith made six try assists in Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020, two more than any other player.
Highlanders v Crusaders
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Connor Garden-Bachop, 13 Ngantungane Punivai, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (cc), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Regan, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (cc), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Hugh Renton
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili Talitui, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Chay Fihaki