13 May 2016

Highlanders still chasing respect

9:11 am on 13 May 2016

The Super Rugby title aspirations of both the competition leaders the Crusaders and the defending champions the Highlanders will get a reality check tonight when the two sides clash in Dunedin.

The Crusaders have won their last eight games - losing only their season opener - and sit at the top of the competition ladder.

The Highlanders hit their stride last round, with a win over the previously high-flying Chiefs.

They are the defending Super Rugby champions, but as far as the Highlanders are concerned, they still don't get the respect they deserve.

A win over the Crusaders would help change that perception and also send a message to the All Black selectors, said Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon.

None of the Highlanders forwards made the All Blacks last year and that still rankled with Dixon. He said his namesake, flanker Elliot Dixon was particularly unlucky to miss out on playing test match rugby last year, and would have a point to prove tonight.

Elliot Dixon of the Highlanders.

Elliot Dixon and the Highlanders still believe they have point to prove. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"He's out there with a bit of a chip on his shoulder to show that he can play some footy and I think most players in our team have that mentality that they don't get a lot of credit, so they're motivated to play those that do get more accolades."

But Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder was not among those underating the Highlanders and said they were the form team of the competition.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder Photo: Photosport

"I sense a real level of excitement because the Highlanders are playing so well. They really dismantled the Chiefs and to go down there (to Dunedin) in front of a full house is really exciting. And to play against really good teams is the greatest challenge," said Blackadder.

Tonight's match will be the Crusaders' first against a New Zealand side since they beat the Blues in week two of the competition and Highlanders assistant coach Scott Roberston said he knew there was always an extra edge to the southern derby battle.

"It's not something we focus on or talk about to the team, but the players certainly feel it and the public definitely feel it."

Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg said playing the Highlanders would be a litmus test of their own title aspirations - a title the Crusaders have not won since 2008.

Dagg will line-up against his Highlanders opposite - and All Black incumbent - Ben Smith and said these games were the ones the players particularly looked forward to.

"It's a big southern derby and the Highlanders are playing really well and they've come off a pretty big win and these are the games you want to play and test yourself against the best.

Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg

Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg Photo: Photosport

"We are under no illusions that this is going to be a big test and this test has come at the right time (for us)," he said.

The Crusaders have won six of the last seven games between the two sides, although the Highlanders won the most recent encounter in round nine last season.

Underrated they may be, but on current form - and spurred on by a full house at Forsyth Barr stadium - the Highlanders can make a statement of their own to not only the All Black selectors but the New Zealand rugby public.

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