Malakai Fekitoa can use the Highlanders' game against the Reds in Dunedin to show he is immune to second-season syndrome, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
While the Highlanders were scrappy as a collective during their opening match against the Crusaders last week, which they lost 26-20, there were a few glimpses of promise from co-captain Ben Smith and Fekitoa in particular.
The 22-year-old Tongan-born midfielder had a stunning breakout season in 2014, and a strong performance against the underwhelming Queenslanders on Saturday could see him enjoy similar success in 2015.
While Fekitoa can punch holes in any defence with his strong running and side-stepping, the Reds should also be wary of his hard-hitting defensive capabilities.
However, the Reds have won the past four matches in this fixture, scoring 128 points at an average of 32 per match. And while the inclusion of former Highlanders loose forward Adam Thomson and flyhalf James O'Connor gives them a great chance to uphold their dominance over the Landers, the Reds forward pack needs to take command at the set pieces and the breakdown if the aforementioned duo are to make any notable impact.
Anthony Fainga'a, who comes into the Reds midfield after a lengthy injury lay-off, will also play a pivotal role in Dunedin. He will need to guard that midfield channel well with young outside centre Samu Kerevi if they are to contain the blockbusting Fekitoa in front of his home crowd.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 9, Reds 10
In Dunedin: Highlanders 7, Reds 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Reds’ current four-match winning streak against the Highlanders is their best run of form in the history of this fixture.
– The last six clashes between these sides have all been settled by seven or fewer points.
– The Reds have managed a better lineout success rate (97%) than any other side so far this season, landing 30 of 31 throws. They have also managed the most steals (six).
– The Highlanders are one of two sides (along with the Bulls) to see their opponents win all of their scrum feeds so far (20/20).
– The Reds sit bottom of the charts for all the main attacking attributes after two rounds; carries, metres, clean breaks, defenders beaten and offloads.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (10)||Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith (1)||Patrick Osborne (59)||John Hardie, Liam Coltman (14)|
|Reds||Lachie Turner (13)||Lachie Turner (1)||Lachie Turner (93)||Liam Gill (27)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8Nasi Manu (c), 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 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).
Subs: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Sef Faagase, 19 Tom Murday, 20 Curtis Browning, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Sam Johnson, 23 Campbell Magnay.
Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images