The Highlanders take on a rejuvenated Hurricanes side in round six's opening match in Dunedin on Friday.
After a bright start, which saw them securing a home victory against the Blues and suffering a narrow loss to the defending champions, the Chiefs, the Highlanders' campaign hit a snag when they suffered an unexpected home defeat to the Force last weekend.
The Dunedin-based outfit welcome back veteran lock Brad Thorn, who has recovered from a rib injury – sustained in the Blues clash – which kept him on the sidelines for the past two weeks.
The 39-year-old former All Black's inclusion will boost the Highlanders' forward effort and his partnership with Joe Wheeler, who has impressed since the start of the season, has the potential to grow into one of the best second-row duos in the tournament.
However, like most New Zealand sides, the Highlanders' main strengths lie in their backline where they have several potent attacking options. All Blacks Ben Smith and Aaron Smith are among the best players in their respective positions in the competition but also keep an eye on Richard Buckman and Malakai Fekitoa. The young duo have impressed with some fine performances for the Highlanders this season and Fekitoa has proved to be one of the finds of the season. Don't be surprised if he continues where he left off against the Force, where he was one of the best players on display.
After a poor start, in which they lost their first three games – to the Sharks, Stormers and Brumbies – the Hurricanes bounced back in style with an emphatic 60-27 victory over the Cheetahs last weekend. The men from Wellington, in particular coach Mark Hammett, were under pressure to deliver the goods against the Cheetahs and they did just that, crossing over for nine tries.
It was also a fitting tribute for veteran centre and captain Conrad Smith, who played in his 100th Super rugby match for the Hurricanes. Afterwards, Smith said the win came at the right time and hoped that result was a sign of things to come during the rest of their campaign.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Jarrad Hoeata, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Hurricanes – 15 Marty Banks, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Faifili Levave, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Jack Lam, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 John Schwalger, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Blade Thomson/Adam Hill, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Matt Proctor, 23 Andre Taylor.
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images