The midfield battle could go some way in determining the outcome of Saturday’s clash between the Highlanders and Hurricanes in Dunedin, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The match-up is a repeat of last year’s Super Rugby final, but both teams are in a very different space after just one round of this season’s competition.
While the Highlanders began their campaign with a surprise – albeit narrow – defeat to the Blues, the Hurricanes dished up the biggest surprise of the opening weekend whey they were hammered 52-10 by the Brumbies.
Nevertheless, coach Chris Boyd has avoided the temptation to make wholesale changes. In fact, he has made none at all, providing the opportunity for the same side to produce a redemptive performance.
Last weekend, the 2015 runners-up looked a complete shadow of their former selves, and it was clear as day that they were missing the midfield presence of All Black stars Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Debutants Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso were given the considerable task of filling this void, and while they didn’t have terrible games, they also battled to make much of an impact in a Hurricanes backline that was uncharacteristically out of sorts on attack.
By contrast, Highlanders youngster Teihorangi Walden produced an impressive first display against the Blues, while Malakai Fekitoa – looking slim and trim – was one of the few standout players for the defending champs.
Fekitoa is a major threat on attack, and it will be crucial for the Hurricanes’ inexperienced midfield duo to not only ensure they keep him under wraps, but offer a bit more on attack themselves.
That said, the Hurricanes do need to lay a stronger foundation up front, with a host of penalties having been conceded at scrum time last weekend.
Similarly, the Highlanders gave away an array of penalties at the breakdown in their opener, so this a clear area where they’ll be looking for disciplinary improvement. It will also be a facet of the game the Hurricanes will have been keenly focused on considering they conceded a whopping 31 turnovers last weekend.
Regardless of the poor starts for both teams, it should be a cracker of a game, with the home team likely to emerge victorious.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Hurricanes 14, Highlanders 12
Dunedin: Hurricanes 7, Highlanders 6
– The meeting between last season’s finalists sees the Highlanders aiming for a fifth win in seven matches against the Hurricanes, though none of their previous four wins in that run came by more than seven points.
– In fact, 14 of the last 15 meetings between these sides have seen the teams separated by seven points or fewer at the final whistle, the only exception being a 56-20 win for the Hurricanes in the penultimate round of the regular season last year.
– After suffering defeat in the opening round, the Highlanders will be looking to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time in a single season since their final game of 2014.
– Aaron Smith contributed three try assists in round one, the most of any player and his most in a single match since May 2014 against the Crusaders.
– The Hurricanes conceded an alarming 31 turnovers in the opening round of 2016 Super Rugby, the most of any team and 18 more than the Highlanders.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Ben Smith (10)||Ben Smith (2)||Malakai Fekitoa (57)||Dan Pryor (16)|
|Hurricanes||Ngani Lauampe (5)||Ngani Lauampe (1)||Nehe Milner-Skudder (92)||Blade Thomson (11)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Hurricanes – 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder/James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Mark Abbott, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Leni Apisai, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 James Marshall/Jason Woodward, 23 Willis Halaholo.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images