The Highlanders will look to return to the victory trail when they host the Reds in this trans Tasman clash in Dunedin on Saturday.
Last weekend the Highlanders suffered a defeat in their season opener against the Crusaders, but they can expect a tough battle against the Reds who are on a high after their victory over the Western Force in their previous match.
There were some good signs for the Highlanders in their loss to the Crusaders, however. The form of their All Blacks – Malakai Fekitoa and Ben and Aaron Smith – was particularly encouraging with Fekitoa and Aaron Smith making try-scoring returns.
The Reds will be no pushovers. The 2011 champions suffered a humiliating loss to the Brumbies in Round One but looked a different team in their triumph over the Force.
The controversy surrounding marquee signing Karmichael Hunt – who was withdrawn from the run-on on side shortly before the game against the Western Force because of his arrest on a drugs charge – had a galvanising effect on the team and they showed against the Force that off-field distractions would not have a negative effect on them.
Both sides enjoy playing expansively, so don't be surprised if this is a high-scoring game. Although the Highlanders are playing at home, the Reds will fancy their chances of claiming a win as they have been victorious in the last four matches between these sides.
Last time out: The Reds ended a six match losing streak in 2014 with a 38-31 win over the Highlanders in Brisbane. Jake Schatz scored a brace of tries and other five-pointers came from Curtis Browning, Rod Davies and Dom Shipperley. For the Highlanders Lima Sopoaga, Richard Buckman, Patrick Osborne and Fumiaki Tanaka crossed the whitewash.
Players to watch: New Highlanders fly-half Marty Banks did well during Tasman's run to the ITM Cup Final last year and will look to carry that form into this tournament. Banks has a superb kicking game but is also creative and has the ability to bring the best out of the players around him. Banks' combination with Aaron Smith will be crucial in putting their side on the front-foot. Smith is not the All blacks' first-choice scrum-half for nothing and has developed in to one of the games leading number nines this season. His excellent passing game and ability to wreak havoc around the fringes of the rucks and mauls are his strengths and if the Reds give him space he could wreak havoc.
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on James O'Connor in the Reds line-up. O'Connor is a gifted player, who can unlock the tightest defences with ball in hand. The 24-year-old is making his long awaited debut for the Brisbane-based franchise so there will be plenty of pressure on him to deliver the goods. He has proven in the past that there is nothing wrong with his big match temparemant and will play a leading role in helping his side to maintain their recent unbeaten run against their hosts.
Team news: Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph has made four changes to his starting line-up after last weekend's loss to the Crusaders. Amongst the backs, Tasman ITM Cup fly-half Marty Banks will make his Super Rugby debut for the Dunedin-based franchise after replacing regular pivot Lima Sopoaga. Up front, Brendon Edmnods will also makes his debut in the competition. He comes in to the run-on side as a replacement for Josh Hohneck, who drops down to the bench, while hooker Liam Coltman and lock Joe Wheeler will also be amongst the replacements. They have been replaced by Ash Dixon and Mark Reddish respectively. For the Reds former Wallabies utility back James O'Connor will make his debut for the Brisbane-based franchise at fly-half. O'Connor takes over from Nick Frisby who is on the bench. Another ex Wallaby Anthony Fainga’a also returns to action after a lengthy injury lay-off. Fainga’a takes over at outside centre from Chris Feauai-Sautia who moves to the left wing where he replaces Campbell Magnay. Lock Dave McDuling will make his starting debut in place of James Horwill who injured his hand against the Force.
Form: The Highlanders' season started with a defeat against the Crusaders last weekend. Prior to that they won two out of three pre-season matches. They finished off their 2014 campaign with a 31-27 loss to the Sharks in the play-offs. The Reds' campaign started dreadfully with a 47-3 loss to the Brumbies but they returned to the victory trail with a 18-6 win over the Western Force. They registered a similar record in their two pre-season fixtures and finished in 13th spot on the table in 2014.
Prediction: Homeground advantage will swing things in the hosts' favour in what should be an entertaining affair. Highlanders to win by six points!
2014: Reds won 38-31 in Brisbane
2013: Reds won 34-33 in Dunedin
2012: Reds won 19-13 in Brisbane
2011: Reds won 33-21 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Kurt Baker.
Reds: 15 Lachie Turner, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Anthony Fainga’a, 11 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 10 James O’Connor, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill , 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Marco Kotze, 4 Dave McDuling, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Saia Fainga’a, 1 James Slipper (c).
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Sef Faagase, 19 Tom Murday, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Sam Johnson, 23 Campbell Magnay.
Date: Friday 27 February
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06.35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium Dunedin
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)