Preview: Highlanders v Force

Date published: March 14 2014

Fresh from surprising nearly everybody against the Rebels, the Western Force look to make it two from two against Highlanders.

Fresh from surprising nearly everybody against the Rebels, the Western Force look to make it two from two against Highlanders.

A win over the Rebels wasn't inconceivable for Michael Foley's side, but the way they went about their business in the first half last Saturday in Perth was outstanding.

Four tries and a couple of kicks from Sias Ebersohn had the Force up 32-0 after 27 minutes. 32-0! You'll do well to find another utterly one-sided opening half hour this season in Super Rugby. It was just one of those periods in a game where everything clicked.

Good on the Force too, especially captain Matt Hodgson. There was perhaps no more fitting way for Hodgson to mark his 100th appearance than with a try and a handsome win in front of a home crowd in Perth.

The 32-year-old has seen few highs and several lows since playing in the Force's first ever match against the Brumbies back in 2006, so that win will have tasted sweet.

The problem with blitzes of perfection such as the one last weekend is that they are very hard to replicate. The Force actually went on to lose the second half 7-0 against the Rebels, struggling to score more tries but perhaps playing with less intent given the try bonus point had already been secured.

Travelling to Dunedin will represent a new challenge and if the Force are really going to grow as a franchise and challenge the top Australian trio of the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs, then away wins will have to happen.

The Highlanders certainly won't give up anything too easily. Their start to the season has been promising, taking a bye last week after running the Chiefs close in Hamilton and routing the Blues at home in the first match.

There is a lot to like about the contents of their side. Liam Coltman is sticking his hand up as the next All Blacks hooker as the pack has coped with the departures of experienced heads such as Jamie Mackintosh and Andrew Hore.

It's a gritty set of forwards, epitomised by the likes of Jarrad Hoeata and John Hardie. The backs though are where the Highlanders shine – All Black number nine Aaron Smith setting the tempo.

He and Ben Smith are the shining lights in this Highlanders side and both should enjoy plenty of space to run into against the porous Force. Malakai Fekitoa, the scorer of sensational try against the Blues, is another who must be licking his lips.

It comes down to who can edge the physical battle upfront and with the Highlanders at home and holding no prisoners, they should create enough for their backs to flourish.

It's a test of character for Jamie Joseph's men; if the Highlanders want to be considered amongst the best in New Zealand, then dispatching the Force with a try bonus point is compulsory.

There will also be the added inspiration for the Highlanders this week of seeing Buxton Popoalii retire at 24.

Prediction: Hard-nosed and unforgiving, the Highlanders pack should lay the platform for a win here. Highlanders by 10.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 John Hardie, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Junior Rasolea, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Marcel Brache.

Date: Saturday 15 March
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 local (06.35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)