All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith will be the difference in the match between the Cheetahs and Highlanders in Bloemfontein on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Highlanders are coming off a bad loss to the Lions at Ellis Park. At the start of the 2015 season, they would have spoken about that fixture as a four-point banker. They may come to regret losing that match at the end of the league phase, as the missed opportunity could compromise their final standing in the top six, or even cost them a play-off spot altogether.
They cannot afford to drop another match on what is a relatively easy tour of South Africa. Their final tour fixture is against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. They won't be short on motivation, and will be encouraged by the fact that they've never lost a Vodacom Super Rugby game at the Free State Stadium.
The Highlanders will be without wing Waisake Naholo. The tournament's top try-scorer has been ruled out due to injury and will be replaced by league convert Ryan Tongia. The other change sees veteran flanker John Hardie starting at openside.
They are changes that won't impact on the visitors' game plan. The Highlanders have a strong forward pack, an excellent kicking game, and a defence that is capable of forcing turnovers and creating try-scoring opportunities. Even though Naholo will be absent, the Highlanders will still have one of the world's best finishers in Ben Smith operating at fullback.
But the spotlight will be on Smith's namesake, Aaron, this Saturday. The decision-making of the Highlanders' halfback pair will be crucial to the outcome. Smith and Sopoaga need to strike a balance between kicking and running. They should know that the Cheetahs are the type of team that thrive in a loose, unstructured contest. At the same time, they will be aware of the Cheetahs' defensive frailties, and there may be a number of chances to counter from deep and catch the largely inexperienced home backline napping.
While the Cheetahs upset the Stormers in Bloem two weeks ago, they will find it harder to rattle the Highlanders this Saturday. The loss of halfbacks Sarel Pretorius and Joe Pietersen, both to shoulder injuries, will undermine their cause. They are still without Springboks of the calibre of Willie le Roux and Coenie Oosthuizen.
The Highlanders had the Lions on the ropes at one stage last week with a 17-point advantage. Had they applied the killing blow, they may have gone into this next tour match with a complacent attitude.
But the result and manner of defeat means that the Highlanders will take nothing for granted in Bloemfontein this Saturday. They will be desperate for a win and should obtain it against a weakened Cheetahs outfit.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 7, Cheetahs 2
In Bloemfontein: Highlanders 4, Cheetahs 0
STATS AND FACTS
– The Cheetahs won the first and last meetings between the sides, but lost the seven in between.
– The last six contests between these clubs each yielded 40-plus points and an average of 54 per game.
– The Highlanders have lost their last three in South Africa, but all these defeats have been by margins less than seven.
– The Cheetahs have won 77% of their scrums so far, a tournament low. Their opponents have won 94% of their feeds, every other side has forced lower success rates without the feed.
– Combined, these sides have scored just seven opening-quarter tries this term. They have scored 21 in the second quarter.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Cheetahs||Joe Pietersen (90)||Boom Prinsloo, Francois Venter (4)||Francois Venter (369)||Boom Prinsloo (122)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (105)||Waisake Naholo (8)||Waisake Naholo (928)||Elliot Dixon (102)|
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rayno Benjamin, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Michael van der Spuy, 11 Sergeal Petersen, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Tian Meyer, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Boom Prinsloo, 6 Tienie Burger, 5 Francois Uys (c), 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Danie Mienie.
Subs: 16 Stephan Coetzee, 17 BG Uys, 18 Ewald van der Westhuizen, 19 Steven Sykes, 20 Carel Greeff, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Coenie van Wyk, 23 Raymond Rhule.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Ryan Tongia, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 John Hardie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Fumiaki Tanaka, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images