Super Rugby Preview: Friday

Date published: May 13 2011

Strap yourself in, because Round 13 of the Super Rugby season is set to be one hell of a ride with a top-of-the-table contest in store.

Strap yourself in, because Round 13 of the Super Rugby season is set to be one hell of a ride with a top-of-the-table contest in store.

The battle of Brisbane sees the Reds and Blues go head to head in this titanic trans-Tasman clash, with the hosts looking to regain pole position in the competition.

The tournament leaders face a tricky trip to a venue that has proved to be a fortress for the Reds, who have won 11 games on the bounce at their home ground.

But before the Blues' begin their mission to hold on to top spot, the Highlanders tackle the Hurricanes in the deep South of New Zealand where the hosts will have everything to play for.

Highlanders v Hurricanes
Rugby Park, Invercargill

The Highlanders will be desperate to get their faltering season back on track when they host the Hurricanes in Invercargill.

It was against the 'Canes in Round One that the Highlanders' unexpected rise in the 2011 Super Rugby season began, but ironically could come crashing down if they lose to the same team they beat 13 weeks ago.

Sitting in sixth position, and with the Bulls breathing down their necks, the Highlanders can't afford a third defeat on the trot with just four more games to play after next weekend's bye.

The task has not been made any easier with coach Jamie Joseph having to deal with a host of injuries, and the Highlanders will certainly have their depth tested with star flanker Adam Thomson one of three players sidelined after picking up injuries against the Chiefs.

It seems a long time ago since the Highlanders beat the Crusaders in Round Ten, a memorable achievement that was then followed by close defeats to the Blues (at home) and then the Chiefs in Hamilton. Victory against the 11th-placed Hurricanes is non-negotiable.

The Hurricanes head to Invercargill coming off a win and a loss in Wellington over the past fortnight, beating the Reds 17-16 and then missing out to the Blues 11-17 after leading the competition frontrunners midway through the second half.

With their play-off ambitions now well and truly over, the men from the New Zealand capital are settling into their spoiler role and will be keen to tip over a few sides ahead of them on the table.

“We've got nothing to lose, we'll just go out there and try to spoil everyone else's winning streaks,” the returning Piri Weepu told NZPA.

To date in 2011, the Hurricanes have won three, lost seven and drawn one of their 11 matches and the Highlanders have won seven and lost four.

Both sides have near identical attacking records, both averaging 20 points per game, but the Hurricanes are conceding an average of 27 points per game and the Highlanders 20.

Expect a big battle up front, between two rival forward packs eager to get on top of the other early.

Mo Schwalger, a former Hurricane, comes into the starting line-up and will face his nephew John, the Hurricanes' loosehead prop on Friday in the front row battle.

One of the Highlanders' favourite sons, loosehead prop Jamie Mackintosh, will also be packing down in the front row in front of his home Southland crowd against Neemia Tialata and their match up should be a cracker with both players vying for a place in the All Blacks squad.

The first round win for the Highlanders was their first victory over the Hurricanes in the past six meetings since 2005 and their sixth win overall in 16 Super Rugby matches against the Hurricanes.

Prediction: Based on the Highlanders previous two outings, a win for the injury-hit hosts against a rejuvinated Hurricanes' outfit may be a bridge too far. Hurricanes by eight.

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Matt Saunders, 11 Telusa Veainu, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Chris King, 2 Mo Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 John Hardie, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Ben Atiga, 22 Robbie Robinson/Tony Brown.

Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Jayden Hayward, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Chris Eaton, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Anthony Perenise, 18 Jeremy Thrush, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Julian Savea, 22 Beauden Barrett.

Referee: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)

Reds v Blues
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Brisbane plays host to this top-of-the-table clash between the tournament-leading Blues and the second-placed Reds, in what should hopefully be a cracking spectacle.

Friday's winner at Suncorp Stadium will finish this weekend's round on top of the overall standings with just five rounds left to go until next month's top-six play-offs.

The Reds have home advantage against their trans-Tasman rivals and will be further buoyed at having won all five games in Brisbane this season.

However, the Blues have won on their last three trips to the Sunshine State, setting up a compelling clash. The Reds' last success at home against the Aucklanders was in 2004.

Once again the Queenslanders' hopes will hinge on their influential halfback combination of Quade Cooper and Will Genia, who have set the tournament alight so far this season. The Wallaby pair are up against the inconsistent Stephen Brett and in-form Alby Mathewson, but the Reds biggest test lies in the midfield.

With the influential Mike Harris ruled out for a month, replacement Ben Tapuai comes up against returning All Black Luke McAlister – Harris' former team-mate at North Harbour. No doubt Harris will have some inside information for Tapuai, who last started for the Reds in Round Six.

The Blues have now gone a whopping nine games unbeaten, several of those have been close affairs with Pat Lam's troops having to hold on by the skin of their teeth. But like captain Keven Mealamu said after the Blues' latest close shave against the Hurricanes: a win is a win.

Friday's match against the Reds would be a fierce challenge but one Lam says his players were relishing.

“This is why guys play the game; they want to be tested at the top level,” he said.

“To go over there, away from home to a stadium where the Reds haven't lost for a long time against a quality team is massive and everything's on the line as far as positions on the table go.

“We've had a good week and we get over there fresh so the boys are ready to go and perform as a team.”

While the Reds (45 points) would remain at the top of the Australian conference with a loss, it would allow the Waratahs (36) to close within five competition points thanks to their bye.

With matches against the Crusaders and Chiefs to come, the hosts will also be keen to