Preview: Hurricanes v Highlanders

Date published: June 4 2015

The Hurricanes host the only team still in with a chance of catching them at the top of the overall standings – the Highlanders – in Napier on Friday. 

With the Hurricanes enjoying a nine-point head start in the race to the top and only two rounds left to play, it's a very slim chance. But this is Super Rugby, and in Super Rugby anything is possible on any given weekend.

A week or two ago you would have been called daft for even suggesting that the 'Canes could be toppled from the summit. But the way in which they went off the boil in last week's hammering at the hands of the Crusaders presented the first signs of fallibility we've seen all season. 

Considering the business end of the tournament is a fortnight away, the timing of that below-par performance will have awoken fears that have lain dormant in Wellington all year…did the 'Canes peak too soon?

"Were we complacent? I didn't think so, we had a great buildup. Did we perform? No, we were horrible," said coach Chris Boyd.

"I'm not sure of the reason why but we're determined it won't happen again."

Just 24 hours before that shock result, on the other end of New Zealand's South Island, the Highlanders were putting on one of the performances of the year as they swept aside the Chiefs in impressive fashion, suggesting they are in fact the form team heading into the play-offs. 

Put that way, one would be tempted to back the Highlanders to take revenge over their home loss to the Hurricanes earlier this year. But with the All Black trio of Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa all being rested and Nasi Manu still on the injured list, Friday's visitors will have a very tough task on their hands. 

Whoever wins, it's likely to be a close result since the last 13 meetings between these two sides have all been settled by seven points or less. Interestingly, 11 of the last 15 games between these sides have seen an away win although the Highlanders team is well stocked with Hawke's Bay players, who will be very comfortable at the Ranfurly Shield holders' ITM Cup home ground. 

The last time these teams met: The 'Canes outscored their hosts two tries to one in Round 6 to win 20-13 at Forsyth Barr Stadium but it was their defensive effort that was most impressive. An arm-wrestle of a first half finished with the scores locked at 3-all. The second half saw a raise in intensity and pace as the Hurricanes scored tries from Reggie Goodes and TJ Perenara but the Highlanders forced a grandstand finish via Sopoaga's late try.

Players to watch: Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo (9) and Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara (8) rank first and second respectively for tries scored this term. We can't say much more about Naholo that hasn't already been said in what has been a brilliant season. Perenara will be hoping to shine as he pushes hard in the hot battle to be Aaron's Smith back up in the All Blacks World Cup squad.  Victor Vito's return should help the Hurricanes fix some of the line-out issues problems they had against the Crusaders while Hawke's Bay hooker Ash Dixon will captain a Highlanders side packed with Magpies if front of a familiar crowd. 

Team news: All Black fly-half Beauden Barrett will slot straight back into the Hurricanes starting XV but won't kick at goal as he continues his recovery from a knee injury. Ma'a Nonu is rested meaning Rey Lee-Lo starts at inside centre. Vito and fellow All Black Ben Franks also return to the pack. 

The Highlanders have made six changes to their team as Ash Dixon earns a start and captains the side, while Elliot Dixon returns to number eight and Gareth Evans to the blindside. Fumiaki Tanaka, Jason Emery and Marty Banks replace the rested All Blacks in the starting team.

Form: The Hurricanes' 35-18 loss to the Crusaders last week was just their second loss in 14 games this year and their first reverse on the road. Highlanders's 36-9 demolition of the Chiefs last week was their third straight win. They have not won four in a row since the start of the 2012 season.

Predictions: The last time Joseph rested his All Blacks the Highlanders struggled in a 31-18 loss to the Brumbies. They claim to have learnt their lesson, but losing their three best players will leave a big dent. Hurricanes by seven points.

Previous results: 
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13 in Dunedin
2014: Highlanders won 18-16 in Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44 in Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Dunedin

The teams:

Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Callum Gibbins/Willis Halaholo, 23 Cory Jane/Ma'a Nonu.

Highlanders: 15 Marty Banks, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 John Hardie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Brendon Edmonds 
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Scott Eade, 22 Shaun Treeby, 23 Kurt Baker

Date: Friday, June 5
Venue: McLean Park, Napier
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT, 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Shane McDermott, Paul Williams
TMO: Aaron Paterson