Preview: Highlanders v Stormers

Date published: March 27 2015

With just a point separating them on the table, Saturday's clash between the Highlanders and Stormers in Dunedin is one of the most anticipated ones of the weekend.

Both sides made impressive starts to the season with the Highlanders delivering competitive performances in all of their five previous matches, although they registered three wins and two defeats, and the Stormers – who are the South African Conference pacesetters – only suffered their first defeat two weeks ago when the came off second best to the Chiefs at Newlands.

The Highlanders head into this clash in fifth spot in the standings with 15 points and despite occupying third place on the table, the Stormers (16 points) are three points adrift of the Chiefs who are fourth.

In 17 previous matches between these sides both sides have won eight times and there has been one draw. The Stormers will draw inspiration from the fact that they have won the last six matches, however. The Highlanders' last victory in this fixture was registered in 2007.

In their previous matches this season, the Highlanders' forwards were always competitive with Elliot Dixon impressing with some solid performances while out wide their All Blacks trio of Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith have led their way with their attacking play.

The Highlanders suffered a narrow loss to tournament pacesetters the Hurricanes last weekend but the Dunedin based side's coach, Jamie Joseph expects a different challenge against the Stormers.

"The Africans play a lot differently than the Hurricanes," he said. "They'll have a big pack and they'll try and maul and scrum us all day. We have to make sure we take care of that, but our attack is pretty consistent in how we play the game," he said.

"We've got the incentive with the bye next week. I think we are ready for a breather. We've had quite a lot of rugby on the trot [but] it's important that we get a performance before we have a breather."

Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is confident they can kickstart their overseas tour on a positive note which will be a repeat of their 2012 effort when a win over the Highlanders laid the foundation to a successful tour where they won three out of four games.

"We would love to start the tour on a good note as we did in 2012 (against the Highlanders), as it gave us momentum and the necessary belief to get more results away from home," he said.

Coetzee knows his side will have to be at their best and admits the Highlanders will be no pushovers.

"We have a good understanding of what we need to do against the Highlanders on Saturday, but we know they're a good team that does a lot right which puts their opposition under pressure."

The last time these team met: These sides met at Newlands in Cape Town last year in Round 12 and the Stormers secured a narrow 29-28 victory. The Stormers' success was largely due to a change in style and they caught the Highlanders by surprise with a more expansive game-plan. Both sides scored fouyr tries with the Springbok prop Frans Malherbe leading the way for the Stormers with a brace of tries.

Players to watch: There are several brilliant attacking fullbacks in the competition but the form of Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith in recent weeks makes him arguably the best of the lot. Smith was superb against the Hurricanes last weekend and don't be surprised if he delivers a similar performance against the Stormers.

For the visitors veteran Springbok Schalk Burger makes his first run-on start of the season and will be determined to cement his place in the starting line-up. Rated by many as one of the game's best loose forwards over the past decade, Burger will be out to prove that he is not a spent force at this level and his experience will be a huge asset in the visitors' bid to be victorious.

Team news: With regular openside flankers Shane Christie and John Hardie sidelined through injury Otago tearaway James Lentjes is set to make his Super Rugby debut for the home side. Lentjes comes in to the starting line-up for Elliot Dixon who shifts to the blindside flank where he replaces Dan Pryor. The Highlanders' only other change sees Ash Dixon replacing Liam Coltman at hooker.

The Stormers have rested inspirational captain Duane Vermeulen due to the agreement with the South African Rugby Union to rest top Boks during the tournament. This means Nizaam Carr moves to number eight and Schalk Burger comes into the run-on side on the flank to make his 100th appearance for the Stormers while Juan de Jongh takes over the captaincy. The only other changes sees Demetri Catrakilis and Nic Groom returning as the starting halfbacks. They replace Kurt Coleman and Louis Schreuder respectively.

Form: After a bye in the opening round, the Highlanders' season started with a home defeat to the Crusaders in Round Two. They put that setback behind them before notching successive victories over the Reds, Chiefs and Waratahs before suffering a narrow loss to the Hurricanes in Dunedin last weekend.

The men from the Cape kickstarted their campaign with four successive wins over the Bulls, Blues Lions and Sharks before going down to the Chiefs at home in their previous match.

Prediction: This game is so difficult to call! Don't be surprised if is still in the balance until the very end. The Highlanders might have the better backline but the visitors' forwards seem to have the edge and that is where this game will be won and lost. Stormers to win by three points!

Previous results:

2014: Stormers won 29-28 in Cape Town
2012: Stormers won 21-6 in Dunedin
2011: Stormers won 18-6 in Cape Town
2010: Stormers won 33-0 in Cape Town
2009: Stormers won 18-11 in Cape Town

The teams:

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

Stormers: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh (c), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Manuel Carizza, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Michael Rhodes, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Huw Jones.

Date:Saturday, March 28
Venue:Forsyth Barr Stadium
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT, 17:35 AEDT, 08:35 SAST)
Referee:Rohan Hoffmann
Assistant referees:Mike Fraser, Ben O'Keeffe
TMO: Chris Wratt