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Preview: Highlanders v Rebels

03rd April 2014 05:18

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Excitement guaranteed: Highlanders v Rebels

The smart money would be on high-scoring affair when the Highlanders host the Rebels at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.

In the three previous clashes between these sides, the Highlanders have scored at least six tries on each occasion, racking up an average score of 40 points per game.

Last year's clash in Melbourne was a humdinger, as the Rebels fought back from 31-7 down at the interval to score five unanswered tries in the second half to win 38-37.

It was the kind of result that summed up the Highlanders' season last year and although things have gone a lot better this term, inconsistency still plagues the team from Dunedin.

Jamie Joseph's team have been full value in terms of entertainment, with wins over the Blues and Hurricanes this season but a frustrating loss to the Force on home soil underlined their ability mix the sublime with the mediocre.

Rebels have similarly blown hot and cold. Thumped by the Force a few weeks ago, they bounced back to beat the high-flying Brumbies last week. How they fare in New Zealand will be interesting but they are likely to struggle.

The Highlanders will look to their scrum to build a platform for in-form playmakers Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga to work their magic. Centre Malakai Fekitoa is also putting his hand up for higher honours as the best performing centre so far in the competition. The 21-year-old has made 53 runs for a total of 284 metres with 18 beaten defenders, the best attacking numbers of any 12 or 13. His match up with Rebels centre Tamati Ellison, the man he has replaced should be intriguing.

The Rebels lead the competition stats for successful rucks with skipper Scott Higginbotham literally leading the way.

The Highlanders have averaged more tackles (142.6) and missed hits (22.2) per game than any other side this season and are likely to continue that trend since the Rebels have held possession of the ball for longer than any other side, on average, this season. They have spent an average of over 17 minutes with ball in hand per game.

Look out for a fast finish from the Rebels. The Highlanders have scored one and conceded six tries in the last quarter of matches this season, while the Melbourne side have dotted down for five in the last 20 minutes of matches.

Prop Toby Smith returns to New Zealand for the first time since joining the Rebels after the Chiefs defended their title last year. Rebels coach Tony McGahan said his knowledge of the opposition played a significant role in the Rebels' preparations.

"We missed Toby for bits and pieces last week, but the four props did their job really well," McGahan added.

"Toby brings a lot of experience against New Zealand sides and is right at home playing over there, and we are looking for his insight and mental attitude to provide a strong base for us going forward."

Prediction: Separated by just a single point in the standings, one would think this should be an evenly contested fixture, but the inconsistency of both sides make it hard to predict. The pressure will be on the Highlanders and we reckon the Rebels might battle away from home having never won outside Australia.Highlanders by ten points.

Previous results:
2013: Rebels 38-37 Highlanders in Melbourne
2012: Highlanders 43-12 Rebels in Dunedin
2011: Rebels 18-40 Highlanders in Melbourne

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 TJ Ioane.

Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.

Date: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Venue: Friday 4 April
Kick-off: 19.35 local (07:35 BST, 06.35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)

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1Crusaders1651
2Chiefs1644
3Highlanders1642
4Hurricanes1641
5Blues1637