The Brumbies will need to protect their ball at the breakdown against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
Both these sides suffered demoralising defeats last weekend, albeit in contrasting fashion. The Highlanders slumped to a second successive one-point loss, this time against the Sharks after playing the majority of the match with 14 men, while the Brumbies were crushed 40-14 by the Crusaders.
The Highlanders boast a wretched record against the Brumbies, with one win in their last eight matches dating as far back as 2007. However, the Brumbies have suffered big defeats this season to two New Zealand teams in the Chiefs and Crusaders, who have a similar attacking game to the defending champions. The Brumbies' defence will have to shut down fullback Ben Smith, which they failed to do with the Chiefs' Damian McKenzie and the Crusaders' Israel Dagg.
Furthermore, failure to successfully compete at the breakdown and lack of ball retention have hurt the Brumbies in recent weeks and if they do not protect the ball better, it's hard not to see them faltering against yet another New Zealand team.
In that regard, the return of David Pocock from suspension should help the Brumbies' cause. The star flanker took charge of proceedings against the Highlanders in 2015, dominating the breakdown battle and scoring a hat-trick. Nothing short of a similar, commanding display will do for the Brumbies.
There are a four changes to the Highlanders starting lineup, with Ash Dixon replacing the injured Liam Coltman at hooker and Alex Ainley coming in for Joe Wheeler at No 4 lock. In the backline, Rob Thompson replaces the suspended Jason Emery, with Patrick Osborne's return to the left wing moving Matt Faddes to the bench.
Pocock takes over from Jordan Smiler in the Brumbies' back row, Josh Mann-Rea, Allan Alaalatoa and Ruan Smith combine for an all-new front row, and Tom Staniforth earns a first Super Rugby start ahead of lock Rory Arnold. The only change to the visitors' backline comes on the right wing, where Nigel Ah Wong fills in for the injured Joe Tomane.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Brumbies 12, Highlanders 7
In Dunedin: Highlanders 5, Brumbies 4
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have lost seven of their last eight matches against the Brumbies, including the last three.
– The Highlanders have conceded 94 points against the Brumbies across their last three encounters, 68 of which were scored in the opening stanza.
– The Brumbies have earned a win in three of their last four excursions to New Zealand to face the Highlanders, with a six-point loss in 2011 the only blemish in that span.
– The Highlanders have now lost consecutive matches by a single point; they have not lost three matches in a row in Super Rugby since a stretch of four losses ended early in 2015.
– The Highlanders have been involved in 24 games decided by a single point in their history, the most of any team in Super Rugby, and never before has a team been involved in three consecutive games decided by a single point.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (78)||Matt Faddes (4)||Ben Smith (522)||Shane Christie (88)|
|Brumbies||Christian Leali'ifano (78)||Joe Tomane (6)||Joe Tomane (481)||David Pocock (59)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes.
Brumbies – 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Leali'ifano (c), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 John Mann-Rea, 1 Allan Alaalatoa.
Subs: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Blake Enever, 21 Jordan Smiler, 22 Joe Powell, 23 James Dargaville.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images