The Vodacom Bulls will face a confident Highlanders team in Dunedin on Friday.
Jamie Joseph's side might be 10th on the combined log – four places below the Bulls – but they have already won three matches this season, which is just as many as their entire 2013 campaign.
The Highlanders got their campaign off to a good start with a 29-21 victory over the Blues in Dunedin before suffering narrow defeats to the Chiefs and Force. Despite those losses, they showed that, unlike 2013, they could bounce back and secured a deserved 35-31 victory against the Hurricanes.
Their joy was short-lived, however, and in their next match the Blues took revenge for their defeat in the corresponding fixture earlier in the year, by beating them convincingly in Auckland. But true to form, the Highlanders then returned to their winning ways with a hard-fought 33-30 victory over the Rebels last weekend. In that clash there were several players who delivered impressive performances and highlighted their importance to their team's cause.
Leading the way was fullback and co-captain Ben Smith, who capped another fine performance with a try while scrumhalf Aaron Smith also caught the eye with a try-scoring effort in his 50th Super Rugby match.
They will have their work cut out against a Bulls team, whose style of play is very different to anything they have encountered yet this year.
The men from Pretoria suffered a 25-20 defeat to the Hurricanes in Napier last weekend but, as the scoreline suggests, that was a tightly-contested match and they could easily have been victorious.
The result proved costly, though, as they lost the services of experienced loose forwards Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann, who both flew back to South Africa with injuries.
That has forced coach Frans Ludeke to use veteran lock Victor Matfield, with Grant Hattingh reverting to No 8. Matfield, who made his playing comeback earlier this year, was initially touring as a coach but answered his team's SOS.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Nasi Manu.
Bulls – 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Grant Hattingh, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van der Merwe (c), 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Paul Willemse, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Ulrich Beyers, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 William Small-Smith, 23 Morné Mellett.
Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix