The Highlanders will have no problem dispatching the Force in Dunedin on Friday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
Divine intervention. That's what the unfancied Force will need if they are to come away with any log points against the Highlanders.
The Western Australian side's last bit of confidence evaporated with their humiliating 53-10 loss to the Chiefs. They will have nothing left to offer in the final match of their three-game tour of New Zealand, having already shipped 94 points, including 15 tries, in two weeks.
In contrast, the Highlanders won back-to-back games in Australia (30-26 against the Waratahs and 27-3 against the Rebels), despite not being at their devastating best. In their last five outings, Jamie Joseph's men have kept their opponents tryless in the first 40 minutes, while piling on the points themselves. They do tend to suffer some inexcusable defensive lapses as the second half wears on, but every time the first-half damage inflicted on the opposition proves to be enough.
Notwithstanding the current contrasting form of the two sides, the Force have enjoyed good fortune against Highlanders in recent years, winning six out of the nine fixtures between them. But that is the only positive they will take into this clash.
This season, the Highlanders have made 19 more clean breaks than the visitors, run 239 more metres, scored 11 more tries and made 145 more tackles.
Surprisingly, the Force have made more turnovers and carries, with captain Matt Hodgson also topping the overall tackling stats. The 34-year-old flanker's work rate at the breakdown has at least given the Force a competitive edge at the set piece too. In tandem with Ben McCalman, the Highlanders' loose trio should be kept honest on the ground.
But once the Highlanders have worn them down and the backs start to run the ball more freely, as they did against the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend, the Force will again be exposed.
Highlighting their rich depth, the Highlanders have made six rotational changes as hooker Liam Coltman, locks Alex Ainley and Tom Franklin, flankers Elliot Dixon and Dan Pryor, and wing Matt Faddes all return to the starting lineup.
There are only two changes to the Force team, with McCalman in for Brynard Stander at No 8 and wing Luke Morahan coming back from injury to replace Marcel Brache.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Force 6, Highlanders 3
In Dunedin: Force 3, Highlanders 1
STATS THAT MATTER
– The Highlanders won their last fixture against the Force in round 15 in 2015, snapping a six-game losing streak.
– The Force have won on four of their five trips to Highlanders territory, with their last away loss against them coming in round nine in 2006.
– The Highlanders have won their last seven matches at home, their longest streak since they won 13 straight home matches from the opening round of 2000 until round three in 2002.
– After starting their season with a loss, the Highlanders have won four straight matches; the last time they went on a longer winning streak was in 2005 (six matches).
– Force flanker Matt Hodgson is the busiest defender of the 2016 season so far, having made 79 tackles (the most of any player) and missing just 11 more; Shane Christie (62/72) has made the second most.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (54)||Ben Smith (3)||Ben Smith (373)||Shane Christie (62)|
|Force||Jonno Lance (36)||Ben Tapuai (2)||Dane Haylett-Petty (334)||Matt Hodgson (79)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Pat Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Shane Christie (c), 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Solomoni Rasolea, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Ross Haylett-Petty, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Pekahou Cowan.
Subs: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Ryan Lourens, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Albert Nikoro.
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)
Photo: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images