Crusaders a step up for Highlanders

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Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger felt the side made a big shift in their game when beating the Brumbies last week and was keen to see if that could continue in their Investec Super Rugby challenge with the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.


Mauger said all teams through the first three rounds had been trying to find their games, something it took all sides a work or two to sort out and most of the New Zealand sides were now settled in how they wanted to play.


The Crusaders game would show them how far they had come another week down the track, he said.


Coping with the Crusaders' aerial game would be one likely test, something the side had learned from their first round loss to the Sharks.


"I thought our mentality around the tackle was much better and they were two areas we wanted to tidy up. If we get those two parts right our attack will click. There were good signs last week even starting to move the ball in those conditions," he said.


One asset the Highlanders have had this time around is former Crusaders first five-eighths Mitch Hunt and Mauger said he had been a handy man to have during their preparation.


Mauger said there had been signs in Canberra the team was starting to gel and he wanted to give key combinations another opportunity.


"Michael [Collins] was too hard to leave out really. He had a big impact on the game and he's done everything asked of him in the first two games. Against the Sharks he came on and really impacted the game from the back under the high ball and last week at 13 [centre] a last minute change he was outstanding in those conditions so he really deserves that opportunity," he said.


With wing Sio Tomkinson's suspension they felt Kirisi Kuridrani was the wing, out of a group who had all been training well, to get them started.


"Hopefully we can get him enough ball and he can express what he's about and enjoy his debut," he said.


The retention of Hunt at first five-eighths and Josh Ioane at second five-eighths was down to their executing the game plan well last week which showed they were gelling and understanding each other's game well so they wanted to keep that combination going, he said.


Mauger was also happy with the way lock Josh Dickson has accepted the challenge to be more telling in the collision area. He had stepped up and while he was sore travelling home, he had been good in that part of the game and his composure at the end of the game when calling three successful lineouts had been outstanding. He had confidence in both thrower Ash Dixon and the side's execution of their plan.


"He probably took his game to the next level so just hoping for some more consistency from him," he said.


Lock Jesse Parete had provided 'pop' off the bench in the first game and from the start of the Brumbies encounter and it was a case of more of the same wanted from him while Jack [Whetton] was a strong scrummager where the Crusaders were strong.


"I think those three guys give us what we need," he said.


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