The Hurricanes welcome a rejuvenated Highlanders side to Westpac Stadium on Saturday in what should be a close game.
It had been a poor start for Tony Brown’s men after opening defeats to the Chiefs and Crusaders but they got their first win last week, over the Blues, which would have lifted a monkey off their back. But they now face a ‘Canes side eager to bounce back from their own loss.
That defeat to the Chiefs was the Hurricanes’ first of 2017 – after cakewalks against the Sunwolves and Rebels – and one would expect them to respond at home. On paper they boast a stronger XV and should get back to winning ways in a result that would hurt the Highlanders.
Despite not having Nehe Milner-Skudder and Blade Thomson the Hurricanes can call on Jordie Barrett and Callum Gibbins, who will perform to a high standard. One feels that for the Highlanders, that guarantee is tougher to give for fly-half Fletcher Smith and flanker Dillon Hunt.
In the past though these games have regularly gone down to the wire, with nine of the last ten meetings decided by a margin of no greater than the value of a converted try. Looking further back, 16 of the last 17 games have been won by 12 points or less, which is some record.
What will give the Highlanders hope of causing a shock on Saturday is that they have won on five of their last seven visits to Wellington. But this time around they will take on a Hurricanes side that has won their last seven games at home, the longest streak in their history and the equal longest current streak of any team in the competition (Lions). Put simply they’ve created a rugby fortress at Westpac Stadium.
While the Highlanders are strong on their travels – winning their last three regular season games away from home – one feels the challenge of defeating a wounded ‘Canes outfit without talismanic figures such as Lima Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo will see them come up short.
The last time these teams met: The Hurricanes ended a two-game losing run against their rivals with a 27-20 win in Wellington last season. First-half tries from Ardie Savea and Brad Shields put them 17-7 in front at the break before Daniel Lienert-Brown’s try and the boot of Lima Sopoaga brought the Highlanders level at 20-20 with the game about to hit 80 minutes. Step forward Savea again to secure the victory.
Players to watch: He has made an impact every time he has come onto the field for the Hurricanes so far in 2017 but this week Jordie Barrett gets a run from the start due to Nehe Milner-Skudder being injured. Barrett has deceptive pace and a bag full of skills that we should be treated to on Saturday. Watch out for him and his brother Beauden as they could have a big say in how this match plays out in Wellington.
For the Highlanders the return from injury of Ben Smith is a timely one. Without fly-half Lima Sopoaga, Smith’s comeback adds welcome experience to their backline, which they will need against the champions. Elsewhere Rob Thompson needs a big game against the in-form Ngani Laumape.
Team news: Flanker Callum Gibbins will start at openside in one of three changes to the Hurricanes team named. Gibbins’ first start of the season means Ardie Savea will play at number eight with Reed Prinsep moving to the reserves, while loosehead prop Chris Eves and full-back Jordie Barrett come into the starting side, replacing the injured Loni Uhila (calf) and Nehe Milner-Skudder (fractured foot) respectively.
Highlanders full-back Ben Smith returns from a concussion while Fletcher Smith will play just his third match for the club at fly-half. Young Otago openside Dillon Hunt will get his chance to start as Elliot Dixon shifts to blindside and Gareth Evans moves to the bench. Joe Wheeler will start in place of the injured Alex Ainley and the versatile Richard Buckman moves to the right wing to replace the injured Waisake Naholo. The versatile Matt Faddes comes onto the bench as the visitors go with a conventional five forwards three backs combination.
Form: Two bonus-point wins followed by a disappointing defeat to the Chiefs has been the Hurricanes’ record so far this season. Meanwhile the Highlanders suffered back-to-back losses to the start the campaign but then bounced back last weekend against the Blues at Eden Park.
Prediction: Home win here as the ‘Canes get back to winning ways and condemn the Highlanders to a third defeat. Hurricanes by eight.
2016: Hurricanes won 27-20 in Wellington
2016: Highlanders won 17-16 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 21-14 in Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 56-20 in Napier
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13 in Dunedin
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
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Chris Eves
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Ben May, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Wes Goosen
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Fletcher Smith, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Sekonia Pole, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Matt Faddes
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 17:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)