THE injury-ravaged Highlanders can finally breathe a sigh of relief after skipper Ben Smith was cleared to play the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby clash on Saturday.

Keep checking in for all the latest Super Rugby team news.

CRUSADERS v BLUES in Christchurch, Friday 5.35pm AEDT

THE Crusaders will tackle the next six weeks of Super Rugby without fullback Israel Dagg as he recovers from knee surgery.

Dagg was injured in last week’s 22-20 victory over the Reds in Brisbane and an MRI scan confirmed a posterior cruciate ligament and lateral meniscal tear to his right knee.

“He has been seen by a specialist who has recommended a small operation to assist his recovery,” the Crusaders said in a statement.

“He is expected to be ready to return to play in approximately six weeks.”

Coach Scott Robertson has made seven changes to the starting line-up which will take on the Blues in Christchurch on Friday.

Owen Franks returns at tighthead prop, while Jordan Taufua and Jed Brown join Whetu Douglas in the loose forward trio.

Bryn Hall will start at halfback this week against his former team, with Mitchell Drummond on the bench.

Manasa Mataele will make his Super Rugby debut, replacing injured uncle Seta Tamanivalu — out with a hamstring strain — on the right wing.

George Bridge will line up on the other wing, with Digby Ioane also ruled out after injuring a finger and David Havili steps into fullback for Dagg.

Wyatt Crockett will make his impact off the bench, providing prop cover alongside Michael Alaalatoa while Pete Samu provides loose forward cover, and Sean Wainui will cover the backs.

Meanwhile, Blues five-eighth Ihaia West has been dumped from the starting XV for his Super Rugby side’s clash with the Crusaders.

The 25-year-old playmaker had a night to forget against the Highlanders on Saturday, turning over the ball three times as the Blues dourly lost 16-12.

Piers Francis of the Blues is tackled by Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs.

In his place will step Piers Francis, who Blues boss Tana Umaga felt had injected much-needed offensive thrust off the bench last week.

“We believe Ihaia has the skills, it’s just making sure there’s that performance, what you put out there on the track,” Umaga told reporters.

“Piers gets an opportunity now to do the same thing and he’s going to be in the middle of the cauldron.”

Elsewhere, Umaga has switched up his loose forward trio for the battle in Canterbury, with Test flanker Jerome Kaino to play at No 8.

Jimmy Tupou will switch from lock to Kaino’s blindside role, while Gerard Cowley-Tuioti slots back into the second row next to Patrick Tuipulotu.

Umaga said the changes were made to nullify the Crusaders’ fearsome set-piece ability, particularly with all-Test locking duo Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett.

“We’ve got to try and match that and obviously ours isn’t going too well, so we want to give ourselves more options,” Umaga said.

“We just want to add some more height, it’s nothing against what Murphy (Taramai) did, we thought he worked his butt off.”

In the backline, Melani Nanai returns to the left edge in place of Rene Ranger, who has dropped out of the matchday squad entirely.

The former All Black struggled on the wing against the Highlanders and would be redeployed in midfield if George Moala or Rieko Ioane become unavailable.

Former New Zealand under-20s midfield back TJ Faiane has been named on the bench after overcoming several long-term injuries and will likely make his debut.

“Bringing (Rene) off the bench probably wouldn’t serve us, we’ve got an opportunity for him to play 80 minutes in the development game,” Umaga said.

“We want to see the best of him.”

CRUSADERS (15-1): David Havili, Manasa Mataele, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Mitchell Hunt, Bryn Hall, Whetu Douglas, Jed Brown, Jordan Taufua, Sam Whitelock (c), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody

Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Marty McKenzie, Sean Wainui

BLUES (15-1): Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Piers Francis, Augustine Pulu, Jerome Kaino, Blake Gibson, Jimmy Tupou, Patrick Tuipulotu, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons (c), Pauliasi Manu

Reserves: Matt Moulds, Sam Prattley, Sione Mafileo, Akira Ioane, Murphy Taramai, Billy Guyton, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane

Referee: Brendon Pickerill (NZ)

REBELS v CHIEFS in Melbourne, Friday 7.45pm AEDT

CHIEFS coach Dave Rennie has made sweeping changes for the fourth-round Super Rugby match against the Rebels.

It will be the unbeaten Chiefs’ first trans-Tasman game of the season, following opening wins over the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes.

In the forwards, Bay of Plenty hooker Sabastian Siataga earns his first Super Rugby start after impressing in his debut off the bench in last week’s 26-18 win over the Hurricanes in Hamilton.

Siataga will pack down between Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala, starting props for the fourth consecutive week.

The second row remains unchanged from the opening three rounds, with Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick set to continue their impressive locking partnership while co-captain Sam Cane will don the No 7 jersey in his second appearance of the season.

Tom Sanders and veteran Liam Messam complete the loose forward trio.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow makes his fourth consecutive start of the season at halfback, while Damian McKenzie will marshall the backline from No 10 with Stephen Donald at inside centre.

Anton Lienert-Brown shifts out to centre while 21-year-old Northland outside back Solomon Alaimalo will make his Super Rugby debut on the left wing.

Meanwhile, Rebels coach Tony McGahan has made four changes to the starting line-up from the side that went down to the Hurricanes with local home-grown prop Fereti Sa’aga handed his Super Rugby run-on debut, Culum Retallick promoted to lock and the return of Sefa Naivalu and Laurie Weeks from injury.

Naivalu, who was sidelined for the first two games of the season with a leg infection, will partner childhood friend Marika Koroibete on the Rebels wing for the first time while Weeks returns from a cork.

Injury to Lopeti Timani (knee) will see Retallick make his first start of the 2017 season and Tom English shifted back to the midfield after a head knock to Mitch Inman.

REBELS (15-1): Jack Debreczeni, Sefa Naivalu, Tom English, Reece Hodge, Marika Koroibete, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Nic Stirzaker (c), Amanaki Mafi, Colby Fainga’a, Jordy Reid, Steve Cummins, Culum Retallick, Laurie Weeks, James Hanson, Fereti Sa’aga

Reserves: Pat Leafa, Cruze Ah-Nau, Tyrel Lomax, Murray Douglas, Jake Schatz, Ben Meehan, Sione Tuipulotu, Ben Volavola

CHIEFS (15-1): Shaun Stevenson, Toni Pulu, Anton Lienert-Brown, Stephen Donald, Solomon Alaimalo, Damian McKenzie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Messam, Sam Cane (c), Tom Sanders, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Sabastian Siataga, Kane Hames

Reserves: Hika Elliot, Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Atu Moli, Mitchell Brown, Mitchell Karpik, Finlay Christie, Aaron Cruden, Johnny Faauli

Referee: Federico Anselmi (ARG)

BULLS v SUNWOLVES in Pretoria, Saturday 4am AEDT

BULLS coach Nollis Marais has made wholesale changes to his team to face the Sunwolves, naming different combinations in every area of the park.

Among the backs, the return of Springboks World Cup midfielder Jan Serfontein is the most significant.

He will play his 49th Super Rugby match, but only his first this season, after a delayed start due to injury.

He replaces Dries Swanepoel in the midfield.

Warrick Gelant will also earn a first start for the year in place of Jesse Kriel, who will start off the bench, while Piet van Zyl will start at scrumhalf for the first time this season.

Up front, Lood de Jager has recovered from the concussion he sustained in the opening weekend of the season and will start at lock with Jason Jenkins.

“The likes of Jan will be keen to get going, while those who is starting for the first time this season will enjoy the extended time on the field,” Marais said.

“I believe this will freshen up our effort, which did not deliver the right results for us in the opening two matches.

“The Sunwolves were unlucky against the Cheetahs and gave the guys in Bloem a bigger fright than we did.

“We cannot underestimate them and there can be no excuses, but for us to deliver a good performance.”

BULLS (15-1): Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jan Serfontein, Burger Odendaal, Jamba Ulengo, Handre Pollard (c), Piet van Zyl, Hanro Liebenberg, Renaldo Bothma, Ruan Steenkamp, Lood de Jager, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Edgar Marutlulle, Pierre Schoeman

Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Lizo Gqoboko, Jacobie Adriaanse, RG Snyman, Jannes Kirsten, Ivan van Zyl, Tian Schoeman, Jesse Kriel


Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (NZ)

HURRICANES v HIGHLANDERS in Wellington, Saturday 5.35pm AEDT

THE injury-ravaged Highlanders can finally breathe a sigh of relief after skipper Ben Smith was cleared to play the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby clash on Saturday.

The All Blacks vice-captain was briefly knocked out in his side’s round-one loss to the Chiefs and has missed their subsequent matches against the Crusaders and Blues with concussion.

He’ll now be re-injected by boss Tony Brown into the Highlanders’ XV as they look to nab their second win of 2017.

Elsewhere, Lima Sopoaga’s hamstring injury in the side’s 16-12 win over the Blues last week has opened up a spot for young gun Fletcher Smith.

The 22-year-old five-eighth will make just his third Super Rugby appearance, lining up against incumbent World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett. Aaron Smith will resume his role as halfback.

“Fletcher has trained well and showed some good form in pre-season,” Brown said. “He’s a young player with a lot of potential, and we back him to do a job for the team on Saturday.”

All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo also injured his hamstring in the Eden Park wet and has been replaced by Richard Buckman, who moves over from fullback.

Brown has shuffled his deck in the loose forwards as well, with Elliot Dixon switching back to his preferred blindside role and Dillon Hunt selected as No 7.

Gareth Evans moves to the bench, while lock Joe Wheeler will play from the first minute due to the injury of Alex Ainley.

Highlanders regulars including Liam Squire, Shane Christie, Ash Dixon, Dan Pryor and James Lentjes and Jason Emery remain on the sidelines.

Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd has made three changes to his starting lineup.

Jordie Barrett starts at fullback in place of the injured Nehe Milner-Skudder, Callum Gibbins comes in for Reed Prinsep in the back-row and Chris Eves replaces crocked prop Loni Uhila.

Gibbins’ promotion sees Ardie Savea switch to the back of the scrum while former Warriors and Waratahs forward Sam Lousi is set for a Hurricanes debut off the bench.

HURRICANES (15-1): Jordie Barrett, Vince Aso, Matt Proctor, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Callum Gibbins, Brad Shields, Michael Fatialofa, Mark Abbott, Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, Dane Coles (c), Chris Eves

Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Mike Kainga, Sam Lousi, Reed Prinsep, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Otere Black, Wes Goosen

HIGHLANDERS (15-1): Ben Smith (c), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Tevita Li, Fletcher Smith, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Elliot Dixon, Tom Franklin, Joe Wheeler, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown

Reserves: Sekonia Pole, Aki Seiuli, Guy Millar, Jackson Hemopo, Gareth Evans, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks, Matt Faddes

Referee: Angus Gardner (AUS)

WARATAHS v BRUMBIES in Sydney, Saturday 7.45pm AEDT



Referee: Glen Jackson (AUS)

LIONS v REDS in Johannesburg, Sunday 2.15am AEDT



Referee: Mike Fraser (NZ)

SHARKS v KINGS in Durban, Sunday 4.30am AEDT



Referee: Egon Seconds (SA)

JAGUARS v CHEETAHS in Buenos Aires, Sunday 6.40am AEDT



Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)


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