Preview: Highlanders v Hurricanes

Date published: March 19 2015

If the history books are anything to go by, Friday's clash between the Highlanders and Hurricanes will be a close-run thing.

Incredibly, all of the past twelve games between these sides have finished with the losers collecting a bonus point. In fact, more often than not the winning margin has been under five points.

So it would be a bold move to assign a favourites tag here, even if the Hurricanes' unbeaten start to the season has been mightily impressive.

The 'Canes have won their opening four games for the first time in Super Rugby. They are aiming to win five in a row for the first time since 2003, when they won seven on the bounce.

The Highlanders have the best line-out success rate this season (91 percent), however they have thrown fewer line-outs than any other team so far this season. But they could come under pressure at scrum time against the Hurricanes team with the joint-best scrum success rate this season.

Friday's hosts have spent less time in possession than any other team this season, averaging just 12 minutes and 54 seconds on the ball per game.

Meanwhile, the 'Canes have the best tackling success rate this season and have completed more tackles on average than any other team so far in Super Rugby.

The last time these team met: These two normally produce high-scoring affairs but their meeting in Round 14 last year broke from the trend with Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara scoring the only try. A scrappy affair in Wellington saw the Highlanders win 18-16. Hayden Parker kicked all of the visitors' points, settling the contest with a sharp drop-goal in the final quarter.

Players to watch: Look out for the head-to-head battles between All Black outside centres Malakai Fekitoa and Conrad Smith. Out wide, there should be plenty of sparks as in-form Highlanders wingers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne face off with Cory Jane and Julian Savea.

Team news: The Highlanders have made three changes as Dan Pryor returns from injury on the openside flank. Ross Geldenhuys has been ruled out so Josh Hohneck switches from loosehead to tighthead and Brendon Edmonds comes into the starting XV. The Hurricanes are without injured hooker Dane Coles but two other All Blacks return to the starting XV in the form of wing Cory Jane and Jeremy Thrush, who is paired in the second-row with Blade Thomson.

Form: The Highlanders come into this game off the back of three straight wins, including an impressive 26-19 victory over Waratahs last week, when they outplayed the defending champions. The Hurricanes are the only unbeaten team left in the competition and looked like genuine title contenders as they beat the Blues 30-23 with a bonus point last week.

Predictions: Who would be brave enough to bet against the Hurricanes at the moment? The Highlanders have come out on top in the last three games between these sides but their injury list has seriously deminished their chances. Hurricanes by less than seven.

Previous results:
2014: Highlanders won 18-16 in Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44 in Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Dunedin
2012: Hurricanes 26-20 in Dunedin
2012: Highlanders won 19-17 in Wellington

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Leniert-Brown, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.

Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Blade Thomson, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Ben May, 18 Chris Eves, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 James Marshall.

Date: Friday, March 20
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off:  19:35 local (06:35 GMT, 08:35 SAST; 17:35 AEDT)
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)