Super Rugby: All Blacks return to Crusaders, Highlanders
The Crusaders and the Highlanders will be strengthened by the return of leading All Blacks when they meet Saturday in the first round of Super Rugby playoffs.
Center Ryan Crotty, who injured a hamstring last month in the first test between New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions, is among five All Blacks who rejoin the Christchurch-based Crusaders' starting lineup.
Frontrowers Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks, who were rested when the Crusaders were beaten 31-22 by the Wellington-based Hurricanes last weekend - ending their 14-match winning streak in Super Rugby this season - all return to the starting XV.
Lock and captain Sam Whitelock, who came off the bench against the Hurricanes, will also start in an all-All Black tight five.
Israel Dagg will return to the right wing while Crotty's return pushes David Havili from center back to fullback in a lineup which contains 12 All Blacks.
Coach Scott Robertson said Crotty has an ''ability to understand the game and make good calls and defensively he's as sharp as you get so he's a big part of our team and we welcome him back.''
Meanwhile, All Blacks fullback Ben Smith and scrumhalf Aaron Smith return for the Dunedin-based Highlanders, bringing their lineup to full strength.
Smith was also injured during the first test against the Lions and was thought to have been concussed for the third time this season, but medical testing showed he had vertigo.
Richard Buckman returns on the left wing and Rob Thompson at inside center, while coach Tony Brown has included six forwards and only two backs on his reserves bench.
''It's going to be an epic encounter, playing the New Zealand conference winners at home,'' Brown said. ''It's obviously an extremely tough assignment against an experienced and well-performed team. However, our guys are very excited by the challenge they face.''
Crusaders: David Havili, Israel Dagg, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Seta Tamanivalu, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall; Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (captain), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Replacements: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, George Bridge.
Highlanders: Ben Smith (captain), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Richard Buckman, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith; Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Replacements: Ash Dixon, Aki Seiuli, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Alex Ainley, Gareth Evans, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks.