The Highlanders will take on a rejuvenated Hurricanes franchise in Round Six's opening fixture at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.
The Highlanders take on a rejuvenated Hurricanes side in Round Six's opening match in Dunedin on Friday.
After a bright start, which saw them secure a home victory against the Blues and suffer a narrow loss to defending champions, the Chiefs, the Highlanders' campaign hit a snag when they suffered an unexpected home defeat to the Western Force last weekend.
The Dunedin-based outfit welcome back veteran lock Brad Thorn, who has recovered from a rib injury – sustained in the Blues clash – which kept him on the sidelines for the past two weeks.
The 39-year-old former All Black's inclusion will boost the Highlanders' forward effort and his partnership with Joe Wheeler, who has impressed since the start of the season, has the potential to grow into one of the best second-row duos in the tournament.
However, like most New Zealand sides, the Highlanders' main strengths lie in their back-line where they have several potent attacking options. All Blacks Ben Smith and Aaron Smith are amongst the best players in their respective positions in the competition but also keep an eye on Richard Buckman and Malakai Fekitoa.
The young duo have impressed with some fine performances for the Highlanders this season and Fekitoa has proved to be one of the finds of the season. Don't be surprised if he continues where he left off against the Force where he was one of the best players on display.
After a poor start, in which they lost their first three games – to the Sharks, Stormers and Brumbies – the Hurricanes bounced back in style with an emphatic 60-27 victory over the Cheetahs last weekend.
The men from Wellington, in particular coach Mark Hammett were under pressure to deliver the goods against the Cheetahs and they did just that, crossing over for nine tries.
It was also a fitting tribute for veteran centre and captain Conrad Smith who played in his 100th Super rugby match for the Hurricanes.
Afterwards Smith said the win came at the right time and hoped that result was a sign of things to come this weekend and during the rest of their campaign.
“It's nice hearing the talk after the game with a lot of the guys saying that [we can build on this],” he told Fairfax Media.
“We've got a couple of tests on the road now, a couple of New Zealand teams which I think is good.
“We haven't played a Kiwi team yet and the guys always say there's a bit more edge to those games and I think we're ready for that.
“The Highlanders have started strongly, the Crusaders are a great side, so we'll have two good games to gauge how we're going.”
The last time these sides faced each other, the Highlanders claimed a 49-44 victory in last year's Round 19 clash in Wellington, but the Hurricanes will not read too much into that result as they registered a 23-19 win earlier during their Round Five clash in Dunedin.
Prediction: In true New Zealand style, this fixture will be a high-scoring affair with both sides providing plenty of entertainment. The Highlanders have looked good in all their matches this season but the same cannot be said of the Hurricanes. Highlanders to win by six points!
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Hurricanes 15 Marty Banks, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Faifili Levave, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Jack Lam, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson/Adam Hill, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Matt Proctor, 23 Andre Taylor.
Date: Friday, March 21
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 local (06.35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)