Planet Rugby

Preview: Stormers v Highlanders

01st May 2014 22:58

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Highlanders fly half Lima Sopoaga kicking from hand

Going well: Lima Sopoaga

The competition's bottom side take on one of the surprise packages this weekend in Cape Town as the Stormers host the Highlanders.

Propping up the table after nine matches marks a dramatic fall from grace for Super Rugby's worst side this year.

That fact was underlined in the basement battle in Bloemfontein last weekend, when the Cheetahs ran five tries past their visitors.

Usually the Stormers' defence is resolute and their problems lie in attack, but last week was a different yet equally painful low.

Some will view their expansive approach to last week's fixture as a positive, but the Cheetahs are one of their worst defensive sides in the competition.

Taking solace from running three tries past them when Naka Drotske's men had already conceded 322 points in nine matches this year - a crazy average of 35.7 - feels like clutching at straws.

The key will be recreating that attacking verve week after week - something the Highlanders certainly do not lack.

Jamie Joseph's men arrive in Cape Town off the back of three wins on the trot - four in their last five games - with their most impressive scalp coming last weekend at Kings Park against the Sharks.

The sense before the season began was that if the Highlanders' hard-nosed pack could take on the top sides upfront then results would follow, but other factors have been influential in ensuring their success.

Malakai Fekitoa is the breakout star of this year's season, having scored four tries already including last week's bamboozling effort that led to calls for him to become an All Black sooner rather than later.

Lima Sopoaga has flourished without the competition of Colin Slade, his partnership with Aaron Smith going from strength to strength, while Shaun Treeby has hit form.

Statistically the Highlanders pack doesn't dramatically stand out - seventh for lineout success, thirteenth for scrums and twelfth for rucks - but their gritty unit always seems to pull it out the bag when necessary.

It's guys like Chris King who typify their work ethic. The tighthead prop will make his 100th appearance for the franchise at Newlands, having first run out in Highlanders' colours back in 2005.

Liam Coltman is the bright prospect but him aside this is an eight that just go about their business under the radar and to great effect.

They will be salivating over the prospect of taking on the Stormers at the lineout, given that Allister Coetzee's unit possess a dismal success rate of 76.9 percent. Eben Etzebeth, De Kock Steenkamp and Manuel Carizza are all missing, but the Stormers cannot bank on that excuse forever.

Schalk Burger's return will bring some influence and the likes of Devon Williams and Damien de Allende have shown they know how to score tries, but replacing Peter Grant with Kurt Coleman could be the answer.

The Stormers will not make the play-offs, the season is over, so there is nothing left to lose now but rebuild and regroup and to play without fear.

Ben Smith's Highlanders exemplify that ethos and will run their hearts out on Saturday. It's up to the Stormers to match them stride for stride.

Form: The Stormers have won one of their last seven matches, an 18-3 success over the Lions the last time they played at home. They have scored the fewest points in the competition with 145. The Highlanders have won four of their last five matches, moving them just two points off the top of the New Zealand Conference.

Previous results:

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 Dunedin

Prediction: One bonus for the Stormers is that the Highlanders haven't defeated them since 2007. Based on current form and confidence though, there's only one winner here. Highlanders by seven.

The teams:

Stormers: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Damian de Allende, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (capt), 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Kurt Coleman, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Michael Rhodes, 4 Ruan Botha, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Brok Harris, 19 Jurie van Vuuren, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Peter Grant, 23 Kobus van Wyk.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Trent Renata, 10 Liam Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Mani, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Matías Díaz, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Jason Emery, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Date: Saturday, May 3
Kick-off: 15:00 local (14:00 BST, 13:00 GMT)
Venue: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: tba (South Africa), Quinton Immelman (South Africa)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)

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