Preview: Highlanders v Bulls

Date published: April 10 2014

The Highlanders will be brimming with confidence when they face the Bulls in Round Nine's opening fixture in Dunedin on Friday.

The Highlanders will be brimming with confidence when they face the Bulls in Round Nine's opening fixture in Dunedin on Friday.

The home side might be in 10th spot on the overall table – four places below the Bulls – but they have already won three matches this season, which is just as many as their entire 2013 campaign.

The men from Dunedin got their campaign off to a fine start with a 29-21 victory over the Blues in Dunedin before suffering narrow defeats to the Chiefs and Western Force.

Despite those losses, Jamie Joseph's side showed that, unlike 2013, they could bounce back and secured a deserved 35-31 victory against the Hurricanes.

Their joy was short-lived, however, and in their next match the Blues took revenge for their defeat in the corresponding fixture earlier in the year, by beating the Highlanders convincingly in Auckland.

But true to form, they then returned to their winning ways with a hard-fought 33-30 victory over the Melbourne Rebels last weekend. In that clash there were several players who delivered impressive performances and highlighted their importance to their team's cause.

Leading the way was full-back and co-captain Ben Smith, who capped another fine performance with a try while scrum-half Aaron Smith also caught the eye with a try-scoring effort in his 50th Super Rugby match.

They will have their work cut out against a Bulls team, whose style of play is very different to anything they have encountered yet this year.

The men from Pretoria suffered a 25-20 defeat to the Hurricanes in Napier last weekend but, as the scoreline suggests, that was a tightly-contested match and they could easily have been victorious.

The result proved costly, however, as they lost the services of experienced loose forwards Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann, who both flew back to South Africa with injuries.

That injury setback has forced coach Frans Ludeke to use veteran lock Victor Matfield – with another second row Grant Hattingh reverting to number eight.

Matfield, who made his playing comeback earlier this year, was initially touring as a coach but answered his team's SOS and Ludeke is confident his presence will boost the team.

“All the players enjoy playing with Victor, he's an experienced player,” said the coach.

“In terms of managing him, it's a tough situation at the moment. We will be sensible in how we manage him.”

Ludeke is aware that victory would set his team up nicely for the rest of the tour which also includes matches against the Waratahs and Western Force in Australia.

“It's important for us to get back to winning ways,” he added.

It's vital for us to make sure we secure our set pieces and apply pressure on opposition ball. From there on we can build an innings.”

Prediction: Most of the Highlanders' games have gone down to the wire and this once should be no different. The visitors showed against the Hurricanes that they can be competitive on the road and it won't be a surprise if they leave with a victory. Bulls to win by three points!

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Nasi Manu.

Bulls: 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van der Merwe (c), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel vd Merwe, 18 Paul Willemse, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 William Small-Smith, 23 Morné Mellet.

Date: Friday, April 11
Kick-off: 19.35 local (08:35 BST, 07.35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Australia)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)