Preview: Highlanders v Force

Date published: March 30 2016

Reigning champions the Highlanders will be gunning for a fifth straight win when they return home to face the Force on Friday.

Success away in Australia against the Waratahs and Rebels has kept the Highlanders' engine running very nicely through the first five games of the season, and the last time they went on a longer winning streak was in in 2005 (six matches).

A run of injuries haven't stopped the Highlanders from moving up into second in the New Zealand Conference, just a point behind the Chiefs, and they're happy to be heading back to a Forsyth Barr Stadium where they so rarely lose.

In fact the Highlanders have won their last seven matches at home, their longest streak since they won 13 straight home matches from the opening round of 2000 until Round 3, 2002.

Last week's win over the Rebels was all about pouncing on mistakes, and there's aren't many sides better in the competition at punishing the opposition when they make errors. With their attack not quite firing the Highlanders still won by 24 points.

Jamie Joseph's rotation of his starting XV hardly lessens the talent on display either this week, with the return of Elliot Dixon to the back row.

Waisake Naholo remains a few weeks away but Matt Faddes has done little wrong in his starts so far and returns looking to add to his tally of two tries this season. He'll certainly be targeting the Force defence, which coughed up 50 points to the Hurricanes last Friday.

Head coach Michael Foley and captain Matt Hodgson don't need to remind their squad that a response is necessary, but they're big underdogs in Dunedin.

The Perth franchise have however had the upper hand over the Highlanders up until last year. 

The Highlanders won their last fixture against the Force in Round 15, 2015 to snap a six-game losing streak, while the Force have won four of their five trips to Highlanders territory, with their last away loss against them coming in Round 9, 2006.

2016 has been more of a struggle given they sit just a point off bottom spot in the Australian Conference, and no side has scored fewer tries than the Force's five so far. The Chiefs, by contrast, have already accumulated 28.

Competitive enough at the set-piece and not lacking for carries with the ball in hand, the Force just aren't breaking down defences. Something has to change in that department to rattle the Highlanders this week.

The last time these teams met: A comfortable win on the road for the Highlanders as they dispatched the Force 23-3 in Perth. Following a low-scoring first half the Highlanders clicked into gear thanks to a try from Aaron Smith, as Lima Sopoaga kept the scoreboard ticking over through penalties and a drop goal. John Hardie's late try proved decisive as the Force had just a Sias Ebersohn penalty to show for their efforts.

Players to watch: Listed last week amongst a group of players that have caught the eye of All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen was Elliot Dixon, who always impresses with his ball-carrying. The 26-year-old from Christchurch is now in his fourth year with the Highlanders and the consistency of his performances at this level are the reason why he finds himself in the frame to represent New Zealand later this year.

The Force's stand-out player has to be Dane Haylett-Petty. Fifth in the competition for carries this season with 54 so far and seventh for defenders beaten and metres made, the Force desperately rely on their full-back to get them over the advantage line. Always looking for the ball and a threat when given space to attack.

Team news: Alex Ainley and Tom Franklin will start at lock for the Highlanders as Dixon, who was outstanding against the Waratahs, replaces Luke Whitelock at blindside with Dan Pryor on the openside. Liam Coltman and Ash Dixon continue their competition for the starting hooker role with Coltman in the number two shirt this week and prop Daniel Lienert-Brown returns to the playing 23. Faddes returns from injury for Jack Wilson, and livewire half-back Fumiaki Tanaka has recovered from his calf strain to take the place of Josh Renton in the reserves.

Meanwhile the Force have made two changes to their run-on side. Wallaby Ben McCalman comes back into the fold at number eight and Luke Morahan returns to the right wing, after missing the first two games of the New Zealand tour with a foot injury. 

Form: Four straight wins for the Highlanders have come over the Hurricanes, Lions, Waratahs and Rebels since that surprise defeat in Round 1 of the competition away to the Blues. They trail the Chiefs at the top of the New Zealand Conference by virtue of the Chiefs' extra try bonus point.

The Force's one win this season came against the Reds at Suncorp Stadium back in Round 2. Otherwise it's been a tough campaign, with defeats to the Rebels, Brumbies, Hurricanes (6-41) and the Chiefs (10-53). The defence from those last two games will have to improve immensley.

Prediction: Everything here points to a home win as the Highlanders look to go top in the New Zealand Conference with the Chiefs away to the Brumbies. Highlanders by 20.

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 23-3 in Perth
2014: Western Force won 31-29 in Dunedin
2013: Western Force won 19-18 in Perth
2011: Western Force won 21-14 in Dunedin
2010: Western Force won 41-27 in Queenstown
2009: Western Force won 33-28 in Perth

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Pat Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie (cc), 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker 23 Jason Emery

Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Solomoni (Junior) Rasolea, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pekahou Cowan
Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Sitiveni (Steve) Mafi, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Ryan Lourens, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Albert Nikoro

Date: Saturday, April 2
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant, Paul Williams
TMO: Chris Wratt