Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith will miss his first match since April 2012 as he continues to recover from a leg infection.

In what is a bitter blow for the Dunedin-based franchise, Smith suffered a superficial graze in last week's loss to the Waratahs which subsequently got infected and kept him in a Sydney hospital for three nights.

The dynamic fullback has so far played in every single minute for his team this season and is one of only two Super Rugby players to do so; the others being team mate Malakai Fekitoa and Waratahs captain Michael Hooper.

In further changes to the run-on side, Liam Coltman re-joins the starting XV as hooker with Chris King coming back on to the tighthead side of the scrum.

Hayden Parker will start in the playmaker position of flyhalf, Trent Renata replaces Smith at fullback and Gareth Evans rounds out the bench.

The Highlanders can clinch the New Zealand Conference with a bonus point victory over their South Island rivals while ensuring the Crusaders don't take a point, however even a loss should see them reach the Super Rugby Finals Series.

Highlanders XV:

1. Kane Hames
2. Liam Coltman
3. Chris King
4. Tom Franklin  
5. Joe Wheeler
6. Elliot Dixon
7. Shane Christie
8. Nasi Manu (C)
9. Aaron Smith  
10. Hayden Parker  
11. Patrick Osborne
12. Shaun Treeby
13. Malakai Fekitoa
14. Richard Buckman  
15. Trent Renata


16. Ged Robinson
17. Matias Diaz
18. JP Koen
19. Josh Bekhuis
20. Gareth Evans
21. Fumiaki Tanaka
22. Lima Sopoaga
23. Phil Burleigh