• Preview: Highlanders vs Rebels

    The smart money would be on a high-scoring affair when the Highlanders host the Rebels on Friday.

    In the three previous clashes between these sides, the Highlanders have scored at least six tries on each occasion, racking up an average score of 40 points per game.

    Last year's clash in Melbourne was a humdinger, as the Rebels fought back from 31-7 down at the interval to score five unanswered tries in the second half to win 38-37. It was the kind of result that summed up the Highlanders' 2013 season and although things have gone a lot better in 2014, inconsistency still plagues the team from Dunedin.

    Jamie Joseph's men have been full value in terms of entertainment, with wins over the Blues and Hurricanes this season but a frustrating loss to the Force on home soil underlined their ability to mix the sublime with the mediocre.

    The Rebels have similarly blown hot and cold. Thumped by the Force a few weeks ago, they bounced back to beat the high-flying Brumbies last week. How they fare in New Zealand will be interesting, but they are likely to struggle.

    The Highlanders will look to their scrum to build a platform for in-form playmakers Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga to work their magic. Centre Malakai Fekitoa is also putting his hand up for higher honours as the best performing centre so far in the competition. The 21-year-old has made 53 runs for a total of 284m with 18 beaten defenders, the best attacking numbers of any 12 or 13. His match-up with Rebels centre Tamati Ellison, the man he has replaced, should be intriguing.

    The Rebels lead the competition stats for successful rucks with skipper Scott Higginbotham literally leading the way.

    The Highlanders have averaged more tackles (142.6) and missed hits (22.2) per game than any other side this season and are likely to continue that trend since the Rebels have held possession of the ball for longer than any other side, on average, this season. They have spent an average of over 17 minutes with ball in hand per game.

    Look out for a fast finish from the Rebels. The Highlanders have scored one and conceded six tries in the last quarter of matches this season, while the Melbourne side has dotted down for five in the last 20 minutes of matches.

    Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
    Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 TJ Ioane.

    Rebels – 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
    Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.

    SA Rugby magazine team's predictions

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    Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

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    Simon Borchardt