Preview: Brumbies v Highlanders

Date published: April 23 2015

The much-changed Brumbies face a Highlanders outfit resting their big guns when the two sides meet in Canberra on Friday.

That doesn't meant that Friday's clash won't be entertaining. These two sides have scored 43 tries between them so far this season and occupy third and fifth spot going into the weekend.

Last week the Brumbies lost out in an uninspiring derby with the Rebels as their personnel issues shone through. Not having the likes of Matt Toomua and Nic White around is a major setback but the Brumbies do have some relief this week with the returns of Joe Tomane, Tevita Kuridrani and Jesse Mogg.

Their attack however has been somewhat limited, with the Brumbies ranking near the bottom for attacking categories including offloads, defenders beaten and metres run.

Not many sides use their forwards though so frequently or effectively in terms of carrying and the Brumbies rolling maul has been a big weapon this year – 78 percent of their 23 tries have come from the set-piece.

That would appear to be their best source of points again this weekend, although they will have to do so without Wallaby lock Sam Carter who is home on leave following the tragic death of his childhood friend Nicholas Tooth last weekend. Heavy rotation in the tight five, with four changes, might leave them a little vulnerable.

Even then, the Highlanders pack has proven to be one of the best in the competition on their day.

No side has won more turnovers in Super Rugby this season than their 85 and that comes down to the work-rate of an unheralded back row unit of Elliot Dixon and Nasi Manu along with a cast of others.

However, resting Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith will undoubtedly have a major effect on their trip to Australia.

Losing that much quality and the disruption of making three key changes to a settled backline is bound to unsettle the unit somewhat, as Richard Buckman makes a first start of the season at outside centre rather than his usual berth on the wing.

Missed tackles are a concern for the Highlanders with a count of 169 to date, the third-most this year, but their set-piece should be able to hold its own and might sniff an advantage with the third-strongest lineout and a higher ranked scrum than the Brumbies in their artillery.

Three players have been in hot form and part of the Highlanders' success thus far – Liam Sopoaga, with his excellent goalkicking, and the two lethal finishers Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo. If it all comes together, we could see some fireworks.

The last time these teams met: Henry Speight, George Smith and Joe Tomane all scored tries for the Brumbies as they triumphed 30-19 in Dunedin, with Hayden Parker scoring four penalties and converting Aaron Smith's late consolation try. 

Players to watch: A new-look second row pairing for the Brumbies might make them a little vulnerable at the scrum and lineout, as Blake Enever packs down alongside Jordan Smiler. Enever scored a try on his first start for the Brumbies recently and the two youngsters will have to adapt quickly.

As for the Highlanders, Pingi Tala'apitaga gets the nod at tighthead prop instead of the frequently penalised Josh Hohneck and will have his work cut out. With the Brumbies scrum statistically the best in Super Rugby, Tala'apitaga needs to step up.

Team news: This will be the first time in Brumbies history that brothers will start together in the front row, with JP and Ruan Smith coming into the side. Enever and Smiler are the locks with Ita Vaea at number eight. Robbie Coleman partners Kuridrani in midfield with Jesse Mogg at full-back.

The Highlanders have made wholesale changes. Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith are all rested as part of the agreement with the NZRU to rest All Blacks ahead of the World Cup, while there are also a number of changes in the pack Trent Renata comes in at full-back, with Richard Buckman joining Shaun Treeby in the centres and Fumiaki Tanaka taking over scrum-half duties. Up front, meanwhile, Pingi Tala'apitaga and Tom Franklin bolster the front five, while Joe Latta and Josh Renton are set to make their Super Rugby debuts off the bench.

Form: The Brumbies have lost three of their last four matches after winning four of their first five, hoping to end their tough run this weekend. The Highlanders meanwhile have won their last three games and six in total out of eight so far in 2015. The Brumbies have conceded the fewest tries in Super Rugby this year, with eight.

Predictions: A tough one to call, because the Brumbies pack has to dominate in order for them to win but major changes to the pack may just put them off their rhythm. If the Highlanders can control possession and then unleash the likes of Osborne and Naholo, then they'll make it four wins on the bounce. Highlanders by 6!

Previous results:

2013: Brumbies won 30-19 in Dunedin
2012: Brumbies won 33-26 in Canberra
2011: Highlanders won 26-20 in Invercargill
2010: Brumbies won 31-3 in Canberra
2009: Brumbies won 33-31 in Dunedin

The teams:

Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Robbie Coleman, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Michael Dowsett, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Jordan Smiler, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Rod Iona, 23 Nigel Ah Wong.

Highlanders: 15 Trent Renata, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Richard Buckman, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Josh Renton, 23 Jason Emery.

Date: Friday, April 24
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
Kick-off: 19:55 (09:55 GMT, 11:55 SAST, 21:55 NZST)
Referee: Matt O'Brien (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)