Smith back for Highlanders quarter-final
Ben Smith's timing is as immaculate as ever for the Highlanders, who have included the fit-again All Blacks fullback in their team to face the Crusaders in the Super Rugby quarter-finals.
Smith has recovered from the hamstring injury that threatened to prematurely end his Highlanders career and will start in Friday's match in Christchurch.
It appeared the 33-year-old's 152nd Super Rugby match against the Chiefs seven weeks ago would be his last as the Highlanders stumbled over the closing rounds.
However, a thumping 49-12 win over the Waratahs in the final round last week and some favourable results elsewhere handed them the eighth and lowest playoff spot, and an unenviable assignment to topple the top-qualifying Crusaders.
Smith, who has signed for French club Pau next season, is co-captain of a Highlanders team at close to full strength.
It's the same story with the defending champion Crusaders, who welcome back All Blacks front-rowers Owen Franks and Codie Taylor from injury, meaning there are 12 Test players in their starting XV.
Veteran prop Franks has only played once in the last 15 weeks because of an ongoing shoulder problem while hooker Taylor has been out for a month (finger).
Such is the depth at coach Scott Robertson's disposal, there is only a place on the bench for rising star Braydon Ennor, one of most exciting outside backs in the competition who bagged a hat-trick in their last game, the 66-0 rout of the Melbourne Rebels two weeks ago.
Exciting winger Sevu Reece is retained and can continue to mount an argument for a maiden All Blacks call-up, particularly if he adds to his competition-leading tries scored tally of 13.
CRUSADERS: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Whetu Douglas, Sam Whitelock (capt), Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Res: Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-capt), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Sio Tomkinson, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock (co-capt), James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Res: Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Shannon Frizell, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks, Elliot Dixon.