Highlanders face huge task to beat Crusaders

Josh Ioane. Photo: Linda Robertson
Josh Ioane. Photo: Linda Robertson
The Highlanders are moving past kicking the ball away and handing it back to the opposition, but are going to have to be deadly accurate with the ball in hand come Saturday night.

The Highlanders will take on a Crusaders team which is playing some sublime stuff, and has scored 23 tries in the first four games of the season.

The men from Christchurch are fresh off a 50-point thumping of the Chiefs, and will bring plenty of confidence to Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Statistics provided by Sanzaar through Opta Sports show the Crusaders have won 10 of the past 13 matches against the Highlanders. The Crusaders have won 19 games in a row, with eight victories away from home on the trot. The last loss for the side was against the Highlanders in the equivalent fixture last year.

To win on Saturday, the Highlanders need to get into their game quickly and put some points on the board to get the Crusaders out of their comfort zone.

But that is easier said than done. In the past eight games, the Crusaders have limited the opposition to single figures in the first half.

In the past few years, the Highlanders have been seen as a team which plays field position and has become comfortable in kicking the ball back to the opposition. It would back its defence and then try to gain turnovers from where it could launch counter attacks.

But the game plan appears to have been tweaked by the new coaching team, led by head coach Aaron Mauger, as the side looks to hang on to the ball.

Though it is early days in the competition, the side is kicking the ball from hand an average of 20 times in a game. That statistic was usually up in the 30s last season and earlier, as the team looked to be dangerous without the ball a lot of the time.

This is further backed up by the side stringing together on average more than 144 passes a game, the fifth-most in the competition. The Crusaders lead that statistic with nearly 175 passes a game. The side from Canterbury is adept at moving the ball from side-to-side and hanging on to the ball.

Surprisingly, the Crusaders are making 136 tackles per game, the second-highest in the competition, which indicates they may not have a lot of the ball.

The Highlanders do not have a great tackle success rate. The side sits at 83%, which is the worst of all the teams in the competition. It needs to improve that on Saturday night.

The Highlanders, led by first five-eighth Josh Ioane, has an 80% success rate with goalkicking.

It will be interesting to see if he wins selection for the Highlanders this week, as he struggled somewhat last game out against the Hurricanes.

But it was never going to be easy for the first five-eighth in a tight game played in horrible conditions in Wellington.

Richie Mounga has been off target with his goal kicking, and consequently the Crusaders are only kicking at 50%.

Both franchises are due to name their sides today. The Crusaders will be without All Black prop Joe Moody because of an ankle injury, but could welcome back Sam Whitelock, who has sat out the first four games of the season because of an agreed rest with All Black management.

All Black skipper Kieran Read is still a couple of weeks away from returning.

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