Crusaders plot to shut down Malakai Fekitoa

X-FACTOR: All Black Malakai Fekitoa will be key to the Highlanders' chances of springing an upset.
X-FACTOR: All Black Malakai Fekitoa will be key to the Highlanders' chances of springing an upset.

Churning through the numbers is the easiest task when constructing ways to thwart centre Malakai Fekitoa. Knocking him off his feet is more taxing.

Before the Highlanders were defeated 44-16 by the Waratahs in Sydney last Sunday night, Fekitoa's statistics were among the competition's best.

The Tongan born-and-raised All Black, who made his test debut against England last month, had the best figures when it came to beating defenders, was third for offloads and sixth for clean breaks.

Then Fekitoa came up against a well-organised Waratahs defensive wall. That, combined with his forwards struggle to win possession or recycle quick ruck ball, assisted the Aussies in shutting him down.

"I think they did a good job on him," Crusaders assistant coach Aaron Mauger acknowledged ahead of Saturday night's match against the Highlanders at AMI Stadium.

"His run-to-pass ratio is probably more in favour of the run, so they obviously identified that. It's something that we have to be mindful of - that he is going to carry the ball when he gets the opportunity.

"We just have to try and take his space away and give him nothing."

A late, and controversial, try to Israel Dagg allowed the Crusaders to escape with a 32-30 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on May 24 but it was Fekitoa who provided much of the entertainment when he helped his side rally in the second half.

The Crusaders pitched Tom Taylor into the unfamiliar centre position alongside Ryan Crotty that evening but are expected to name Dan Carter and Crotty as their midfield combination for this last round-robin match.

Fekitoa's powerful leg-drive enabled him to bust tackles but Mauger believed the Crusaders could reduce his effectiveness if they improved their "connects".

"If our connections are good our one-on-one tackles are a little bit easier - and from there it's just about individuals making their tackles.

"That is about communication with the guys on either side of you, communicating who you are going to tackle. We have done quite a bit of work on that in the last couple of weeks.

"When you start focusing on your defence a bit more it probably reflects on your attitude when you are out on the field."

The return of left wing Nemani Nadolo, who scored two tries in last Saturday night's 21-13 win over the Blues at AMI Stadium, has added some fire to the Crusaders attack but Mauger denied his backline is too reliant on the Fijian to accumulate their tries.

The return of Kieran Read, he said, allowed them to have more impetus out wide.

"It was all the other parts of our shape that allowed us to get the ball into those wider channels and those guys to have punch on the edge. It certainly helps having wider men out there and having Reado back made a big difference as well with his carry in the wide channel.

"Kieron Fonotia, too, and I thought Crotts [Crotty] was superb and Izzy [Israel Dagg] is carrying the ball. Those guys have the ability to break the game open if we are efficient with our shape."

The Press