Tevita Kuridrani's return could be decisive when the Brumbies host the Highlanders in Canberra on Saturday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
The Brumbies' midfield general was in top form during the early stages of the competition, before sustaining a shoulder injury against the Waratahs in round six that ruled him out of their matches against the Cheetahs, Blues and Rebels. In his absence, winger Henry Speight partnered Christian Leali'ifano in midfield, but the partnership never really took off.
After two straight defeats, coach Stephen Larkham has fast-tracked Kuridrani back into the starting XV and his abrasive, direct approach might just spark the Brumbies backline back to life.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders head to the Australian capital high on confidence after three consecutive victories over the Stormers, Crusaders and Blues. They will, however, field a weakened side after coach Jamie Joseph decided to rest All Blacks Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith, all of whom were instrumental in their recent success.
Fifth on the overall log and third in the New Zealand conference, another Landers win will see them keep the pressure on the Chiefs and Hurricanes, while also maintaining their advantage over the struggling Crusaders.
For the Brumbies, it'll all be about damage control after the 13-8 shock loss to the Rebels, which ended their 11-match winning streak at home.
Joseph has made five changes to his side with fullback Trent Renata, utility back Richard Buckman and scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka coming in for Ben Smith, Fekitoa and Aaron Smith respectively, while inside centre Shaun Treeby and tighthead prop Pingi Tala'apitaga replace Jason Emery and Josh Hohneck.
Larkham has also made a host of changes, with Kuridrani, fullback Jesse Mogg, No 8 Ita Vaea, locks Blake Enever and Jordan Smiler and prop Ruan Smith all drafted into the run-on side.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Brumbies 11, Highlanders 7
In Canberra: Brumbies 7, Highlanders 2
STATS AND FACT
– The Brumbies' 70-26 defeat of the Highlanders in May 1996 still stands as the New Zealand side's record defeat.
– The Canberra-based side has won six of the last seven meetings between these teams.
– The Brumbies have lost two in a row, with those matches producing just 51 points combined. They have not lost three in a row since May 2011.
– The Highlanders are aiming for a fourth consecutive victory for the first time since March 2012.
– The Brumbies rank first (91%) and the Highlanders third (89%) for lineout success rate.
– The Brumbies' opponents gain fewer metres per game (341) than against any other side, while the Highlanders have conceded the most per game (499).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Brumbies||Christian Lealiifano (87)||Ben Alexander (3)||Robbie Coleman (411)||Jarrad Butler (85)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (74)||Waisake Naholo (7)||Waisake Naholo (705)||Elliot Dixon (90)|
Brumbies – 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Robbie Coleman, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Michael Dowsett, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Blake Enever, 4 Jordan Smiler, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 JP Smith.
Subs: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Rod Iona, 23 Nigel Ah Wong.
Highlanders – 15 Trent Renata, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Richard Buckman, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Josh Renton, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images