Two sides eager to get back to winning ways will face off at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday to kick-off Round 9 of the Super Rugby season.
Jamie Joseph’s men were stunned at the Reds two weeks ago as an off-colour night saw them head into their bye week on the back of a loss.
The Sharks meanwhile are in free-fall at the moment after a draw followed by three straight defeats have left their fans less than happy. One bright note in their season so far has been the form of centre Paul Jordaan but injury sees him miss the game in yet another setback.
Gary Gold has chosen to ring the changes for Friday in an attempt to change their fortunes so in comes a new director at fly-half, Garth April, who takes over from Joe Pietersen. His task is to ignite a side which has made the third fewest clean breaks and defenders beaten this season, against one of the best attacking teams in the competition, who will be keen to bounce back in style in front of their fans.
The Highlanders will fancy their chances, despite a couple of backline changes, as they have won five of their last seven matches against South Africa teams; that streak has included both a win and a loss against the Sharks. They’re also on an eight-game winning run at home.
Ben Smith’s return from concussion is a significant boost to their attacking game as he provides an alternative first-receiver option to accompany his renowned kick returns. They missed him greatly in Brisbane and no doubt he will lead a revival from that Brisbane howler.
If the Highlanders click it is hard to see the Sharks coping in an attacking fight – as we saw against the Lions in Round 7 – and with a trip to the Chiefs to follow this, it could transpire that this is a tour from hell from a Sharks outfit struggling to remain above water.
The last time these teams met: The Highlanders outplayed the Sharks in Dunedin last season, running out 48-15 winners. They scored seven tries in that victory as Gareth Evans, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne, Mark Reddish, Aaron Smith, Brendon Edmonds and Elliot Dixon went over, with Lima Sopoaga kicking 13 points. In reply the Sharks’ two scorers were front-row pair Tendai Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis.
Players to watch: As mentioned the return of Ben Smith is a sizeable boost for the Highlanders and they will hope the full-back is firing on all cylinders on Friday. Shane Christie will also look to lead by example in the physical battle up front after a strong early season.
Two of the quickest number nines clash in Dunedin as Aaron Smith takes on Cobus Reinach, who if given an inch will make any team pay. The Sharks will hope he wins his personal battle with Smith as that would help limit the All Black’s impact on the game. Expect a big game from the Shark.
Team news: Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith returns to his team’s starting line-up and takes his place at full-back with Matt Faddes moving to the right wing and Jack Wilson starts on the left wing. At inside centre, Rob Thompson, makes way for Jason Emery while several changes have been made to the pack, with Ash Dixon coming in at hooker and Josh Hohneck and Tom Franklin returning to the hosts’ starting line-up.
Meanwhile, Paul Jordaan’s niggle means JP Pietersen shifts to outside centre with Odwa Ndungane coming into the side on the wing. His spot on the bench is taken by S’bura Sithole. Also named on the bench are Chiliboy Ralepelle and Jean Deysel. Garth April has been given a start and swaps places with Joe Pietersen at fly-half while Keegan Daniel, in for Daniel du Preez, is the final change to the Sharks starting XV.
Form: The Highlanders’ five-game winning run came to an abrupt end two weeks ago when they suffered a shock defeat to the Reds. Fresh from their bye round the Dunedin outfit will be looking to make up ground and hopefully overtake their rivals in the New Zealand group, as they have dropped behind the Crusaders and Hurricanes, with the Chiefs also out in front of them and sitting pretty at the summit by six points.
The Sharks enter this fixture on the back of a tour-opening loss at the Blues, which followed two other defeats to the Lions and Crusaders. Those, along with a draw at the Bulls before that, have resulted in Gary Gold’s men dropping five points behind Africa 2 leaders the Lions.
Prediction: We can’t look past a home win here. Highlanders by 12.
2015: Highlanders won 48-15 in Dunedin
2014: Sharks won 31-27 in Durban
2014: Highlanders won 34-18 in Durban
2013: Highlanders won 25-22 in Dunedin
2012: Sharks won 28-16 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 30-16 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Jack Wilson, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Patrick Osborne
Sharks: 15 Willie Le Roux, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c)
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Joe Pietersen, 23 S’bura Sithole
Date: Friday, April 22
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keefe
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser, Kane McBride
TMO: Shane McDermott