The Hurricanes' returning flyhalf Beauden Barrett's class could be the difference against the Highlanders in Napier on Friday, writes RYAN VREDE.
Barrett will play for the first time since sustaining a knee injury just over a month ago. The Hurricanes certainly haven't struggled in his absence but they are undoubtedly a better team with him in it.
The young pivot has grown his game notably over the past two seasons, progressing from a raw rookie to a skilled conductor capable of influencing and winning or contributing significantly to winning matches.
Much of his potency relies on his pack's dominance and to date they have seldom failed to deliver. Against a Highlanders pack without their All Blacks, who are being rested, the hosts should dominate the set pieces and collisions in general play, thereby aiding Barrett's cause. Scrumhalf TJ Perenara's strong recent form will further aid Barrett.
Don't expect the pivot to put boot to ball in search of space behind the Highlanders' back three (only three sides have kicked less than the Canes). Given the immense threat the visitors' winger Waisake Naholo poses, this would be a bad option even if it was part of the Canes' tactical fabric.
Barrett's strengths are in his distribution and ability to run at the defensive line, particularly one that has been compromised either through multi-phase attacks or surrendering broken-field ball. With the forward momentum his heavies are expected to generate on attack, Barrett should have ample opportunities to exhibit his primary skill-set. Expect outside backs Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith and Julian Savea to feed off Barrett's service. The absence of Ma'a Nonu, who is being rested, should not be too significant.
That said, the Canes will be acutely aware of the threat the Landers pose. Curiously, the visitors have opted to rest their All Blacks, but have spoken confidently of their prospects in the press this week.
Naholo will be the key if they hope to take the points from McLean Park. He leads the tournament in tries scored and is second in metres made (1,119). The Canes will be mindful of the fact that he will punish them if granted space and time to exploit.
The Dunedin-based side will continue with the fairly pragmatic approach that has brought them success in recent weeks (they've won three on the bounce), kicking for territory and exerting defensive pressure on receivers. It's an approach that, if executed well, will improve their chances of victory significantly. The obvious concern is that their weakened side will struggle to do so consistently and succumb to the Canes' incredible strike power, which carries through from front to back.
In team news, Barrett replaces Otere Black, who has been released to the New Zealand U20 side. Among the pack, Ben Franks replaces Jeffery Toomaga-Allen at tighthead prop, Victor Vito returns at No 8 and Blade Thomson shifts to blindside flank.
For the Highlanders, Ash Dixon earns a start at hooker and the captaincy, while Elliot Dixon returns to No 8 and Gareth Evans to the blindside. Scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka, centre Jason Emery and fullback Marty Banks replace Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith respectively.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Hurricanes 13, Highlanders 11
In Wellington: Hurricanes 6, Highlanders 5
STATS AND FACTS
– Waisake Naholo (nine) and TJ Perenara (eight) rank first and second respectively for tries scored this season.
– The Hurricanes boast the best scrum success rate (96%) this year, but the Highlanders have averaged the most scrums won on their own feed (7.8).
– The Highlanders rank second (27.6) and Hurricanes third (27.2) for points per game this year.
– The last two fixtures between these sides have seen 34 and 33 points scored respectively. The previous four averaged 62.
– Eleven of the last 15 games between these sides have seen an away win.
– The Highlanders are aiming for four consecutive victories for the first time since the first four rounds of the 2012 season.
– The last 13 meetings between these two sides have all been settled by seven points or fewer.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Hurricanes||Beauden Barrett (110)||TJ Perenara (8)||Julian Savea (974)||Brad Shields (140)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (140)||Waisake Naholo (9)||Waisake Naholo (1,119)||Elliot dixon (120)|
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 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: (one to be ommitted): 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18 Chris Eves, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Brad Shields, 22 Chris Smylie, 23 Cory Jane, 24 Willis Halaholo.
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.
Subs: 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.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Shane McDermott (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images