Planet Rugby

Preview: Hurricanes v Highlanders

15th May 2014 07:00

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malaki fekitoa smashes conrad smith highlanders v hurricanes 2014

All Blacks: Fekitoa and Smith

Two sides tied on exactly 30 points after 13 weeks with the New Zealand Conference summit in sight, the Hurricanes host the Highlanders.

We talk about form a lot in Super Rugby, and for good reason. Slip up in one fixture and you may be forced to go on the road to try and get back to winning ways. Get a run together and before you know it, you could be near the playoffs.

The Hurricanes are a team getting it right. Since they last took on the Highlanders in March they have won five of their last six matches.

Focusing first on that one black mark, the 39-30 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney, even in defeat their performance was impressive.

Otherwise the scalps of the Crusaders (also running hot), Bulls, Blues, Reds and Rebels have all been taken.

It shouldn't be forgotten that this is a group who whilst supremely talented lost their first three matches, including one against the Stormers.

Since coach Mark Hammett announced that he wouldn't continue with the franchise before the end of the season the 'Canes have soared.

At the heart of all their good work has to be Beauden Barrett, the Super Rugby points machine who as things stand will be battling it out alongside Colin Slade to start against England in June.

The tournament's clear top scorer with 167 points - of which 25 are from tries of his own - the 22-year-old is flying.

He is getting a lot of help from his friends. Alapati Leiua has been dropped for this week, replaced by Tim Bateman. The latter revealed he would be heading back to Japan at the end of the season this week, but for all the right reasons.

Out wide Cory Jane has rediscovered his spark, while Julian Savea is a brute. The tight five will be without Dane Coles this week but powerhouse Jeffery Toomaga-Allen returns. James Broadhurst and Jeremy Thrush are dogged operators. It will be interesting though to see how their top six-ranked line-out and scrum cope without Coles' authority. The breakdown work of Faifili Levave and Victor Vito certainly can't be faulted.

As for the Highlanders, their form isn't so bad either. Four wins from their last five games should be bringing Jamie Joseph's men into this one with a similar level of hype.

Except while the 'Canes were made to work hard by a dogged Rebels outfit at home, the Highlanders nearly had the shock of their lives when the Lions came back from 23-0 to lose 23-22 last weekend.

Either the Highlanders will be suffering a slight dip in confidence from that surprising charge at their lead, or be given renewed bite to perform in Wellington.

Their scrum is a concern and losing tighthead prop Chris King to a one-week ban doesn't help matters.

But, they have one of the better tackle success percentages in the league - 87.3. That will have to be first-rate against a Hurricanes attack that tops every single attacking stat category, making 12 more clean breaks and over 300 more metres than any other side.

The key backs - Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith - will have to make an impact as Hayden Parker gets the nod again. If Jarrad Hoeata and co. can lay the foundations upfront and tighten the game up, it'll be interesting to see how the 'Canes respond.

Form: Five wins out of the last six for the Hurricanes and four out of the last five for the Highlanders means that these are two teams are very much in form. They are level on 30 points, but the Highlanders have a game in hand.

Previous results: 2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44 in Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Dunedin
2012: Hurricanes won 26-20 in Dunedin

Prediction: Given these teams are level on the log, there's no real daylight between them. It'll be interesting to watch the All Blacks 'trail' between Fekitoa and Conrad Smith. It's Hurricanes' flair against Highlanders' spirit. 'Canes by six.

Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Motu Matu'u, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Brad Shields, 22 Chris Smylie, 23 Alapati Leiua.

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

Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Peterson (New Zealand)

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