After an impressive start to their season, the Highlanders face a tough challenge when they take on the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
With three matches played, the visitors are sitting pretty at the top of the New Zealand Conference standings while the Hurricanes are three points adrift in second place.
This means there’s plenty at stake, even at this early stage of the season, and although the Hurricanes claimed a comfortable 41-15 victory in the corresponding fixture at the same venue last year, they know they will have to be at their best against this Highlanders side, who are unbeaten after three matches this year.
Both sides have plenty of potent attackers in their ranks, especially amongst the backs where the home side boast seasoned internationals like Jordie and Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Julian Savea and Ngani Laumape, while their All Blacks’ team-mates Ben and Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo will lead the Highlanders’ charge.
Matches between these sides are usually entertaining affairs and, although the Highlanders are yet to lose this year, this encounter should be a tough assignment for them as it will be the first time they play outside Dunedin in 2018.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will be quietly confident of taking the spoils as they have won four of their last five regular season games against the Highlanders, including each of their last two. Only once in 14 home games against the Highlanders have the Hurricanes failed to pick up competition points (nine wins and four losing bonus-points).
The 2016 champions have also won six of their last seven New Zealand derbies on home turf, including each of their last two with only the Chiefs beating them in Wellington during that time.
The Highlanders have lost their last three away games in New Zealand, including a 26-point defeat to the Hurricanes. The 2015 champions’ three wins on the bounce is one of their best starts to a campaign – only three times before have they made a better start to a Super Rugby campaign (four wins in 1999, 2000, 2012).
The last time these teams met: The Hurricanes proved too strong for the Highlanders and claimed a 41-15 victory over the men from New Zealand’s South Island in a round four fixture in Dunedin last year. The Hurricanes outscored their opponents seven tries to two with Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape scoring a brace each. Matt Proctor, Ardie and Julian Savea also dotted down and Jordie Barett (2) and Beauden Barrett succeeded with conversions.
Players to watch:
For Hurricanes: After an underwhelming 2017 season, Julian Savea is determined to show that he is not a spent force and will be keen to make a big impact with ball in hand. When on song, the All Blacks flyer is of the most destructive runners in the game so, if his inside backs can create space for him, he is sure to keep the Highlanders’ defenders busy.
For Highlanders: All Blacks flanker Elliot Dixon came on as a half-time replacement for the injured Liam Squire against the Crusaders last weekend and made his presence felt with a memorable performance on attack in which he was rewarded with a try for his efforts. With Squire sidelined and after that man of the match performance against the Crusaders, Dixon has been elevated to the run-on side and will be keen to continue where he left off in that encounter.
Team news: TJ Perenara will join the Hurricanes 100 club on Saturday when he runs out in this match. The All Blacks scrum-half, who will be the 13th Hurricanes player to reach 100 games for the club, is part of a side that contains just one change to the starting side that defeated the Crusaders 29-19 in their last match with Murray Douglas replacing Vaea Fifita who has a minor shoulder injury.
Hurricanes’ head coach Chris Boyd has also made two changes to the bench from that match with All Blacks prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen returning after being sidelined with injury. Toomaga-Allen, who played 30 minutes for the Hurricanes Development side last Saturday, replaces Marcel Renata while in the other change, Reed Prinsep comes in for Blade Thomson.
Meanwhile, Elliot Dixon will get his first start of the season for the Highlanders in the number six jersey. Dixon will combine with 2017 All Blacks, Luke Whitelock and Dillon Hunt, to form the loose forward trio and replaces the injured Liam Squire.
With Dixon’s elevation to the starting XV, Hawkes Bay and NZ U20 loose forward, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, who joined the Highlanders’ earlier in the year as injury cover for James Lentjes, will get the opportunity to play for his second Highlanders’ cap from the bench.
Up front, Tyrell Lomax also gets his first start in the Highlanders jersey at tighthead prop after a few cameos in the early rounds. Young Otago pivot, Josh Ioane, has been named on the bench and will play his debut game for the Highlanders should he take the field.
Form: The Hurricanes headed to Pretoria for their first fixture and suffered a narrow 21-19 loss to the Bulls but bounced back in style with impressive victories against the Jaguares (34-9) in Buenos Aires and the Crusaders (29-19) in Wellington before having a bye last weekend.
The Highlanders have made a fine start to their campaign and have beaten the Blues (41-34), Stormers (33-15) and Crusaders (25-17) from their three matches played so far.
Prediction: There should be plenty of thrilling action between two evenly matched teams but home ground advantage will be crucial. Hurricanes to win by five points!
2017: Hurricanes won 41-15 in Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 27-20 in Wellington
2016: Highlanders won 17-16 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 21-14 in Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 56-20 in Napier
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13 in Dunedin
2014: Highlanders won 18-16 in Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44 in Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Dunedin
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Murray Douglas, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves
Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Fraser Armstrong, 18 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Vince Aso
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Shannon Fizzell, 20 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Joshn Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes
Date: Saturday, March 24
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)