Planet Rugby

Preview: Highlanders v Lions

09th May 2014 06:36

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Aaron Smith Highlanders SR 2014

Highlanders' dangerman: Aaron Smith

The Highlanders will be keen to get their campaign back on track when they host the Lions in Dunedin on Saturday.

Jamie Joseph's side are back in front of their home fans after returning from their two-week tour to South Africa.

They started off with a convincing victory over the table-topping Sharks in Durban before suffering a narrow defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town.

After being amongst the basement dwellers last season, the Highlanders have improved considerably and are lying in eighth spot on the table.

They are, however, on the same number of points as the Crusaders who are sixth - and currently occupying the final play-off place by virtue of a superior points difference - and the Hurricanes who are in seventh place.

In 2013, the Highlanders amassed 29 points from 18 matches played and only managed to win three matches. Apart from being just three points of last year's tally of points in the standings, they have almost doubled their number of victories with five triumphs from nine games which has been achieved in exactly half the games they played last year.

So, if 2013's form is to be compared to this campaign's, then the men from Dunedin can already view their season as a success.

However, last weekend's loss to the Stormers came at a cost as their first-choice fly-half Lima Sopoaga - who is the tournament's second highest points-scorer with 127 points - is sidelined for three weeks with an ankle injury.

Joseph admitted that losing Sopoaga was a major blow for his side but is confident his replacement Hayden Parker will give a good account of himself against the Lions.

"I think the consistency of our team is based around our eight, nine and 10 - Nasi Manu, Aaron Smith and Lima - so we've got a new combination with Hayden," Joseph told Fairfax Media.

"With that in mind, Hayden's showed the skillset that we need. He's a good general, he can control the game, he's a good goal kicker."

The Lions kicked off their Australasian tour with a defeat to the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend.

With the Highlanders returning from an arduous trip from South Africa, earlier, this week, and the loss of Sopoaga, Lions coach Johann Ackerman and his charges know their chances of winning have improved.

After returning to the competition, after a year in the wilderness - when they were relegated at the end of 2012 - the Johannesburg-based outfit surprised several teams with some impressive results in their opening games this season.

They beat more fancied teams like the Stormers, Reds and Blues at their Ellis Park headquarters and started their campaign in style with a narrow away win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

Their form has been poor in recent weeks though as they are currently on a four-match losing streak after defeats to the Crusaders, Sharks, Stormers and the Chiefs.

They battled in the first match of their tour, conceding six tries in that loss against the Chiefs.

They've been punching above their weight throughout this season and will have to do more of the same this weekend.

Prediction: This game is the Lions' best chance of securing a win on their four-match tour. They'll be competitive but, in the end, the hosts will still be victorious. Highlanders to win by six points!

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Jason Emery, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Joe Wheeler, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Kane Hames, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Gareth Evans.

Lions: 15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Martin Muller, 4 MB Lusaseni, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Rudi Mathee, 20 Warwick Teckenburg, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 JW Jonker.

Date: Saturday, May 10
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)

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