The Rebels will have to nullify Aaron and Ben Smith if they are to beat the Highlanders in Melbourne on Saturday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
The pair have cracked open some of the best defences in the competition and will pose the biggest threat to the Rebels' near-perfect Super Rugby campaign to date.
At first glance, there is nothing separating the cross-Tasman rivals. Both have chalked up three wins in four games and are level on 13 points on the Australasian group log. But on closer inspection, the Highlanders have a more complete and versatile squad.
The Rebels have made huge strides this season to emerge as the second best team in Australia, but beating the defending champions will be a stretch too far for Tony McGahan's charges.
In their respective contests against the Sunwolves and Waratahs last weekend, the Rebels and Highlanders got over the finish line thanks to exemplary defence and discipline, but in this fixture the visitors have an attacking edge and with a dominating pack they should collect the log points on offer.
Both the Smiths – Ben at fullback and Aaron at scrumhalf – have shown during the early stages of the tournament why they are regarded as the leading men in those positions by getting the Highlanders out of a tight spot more than once and if they are given free reign at AAMI Park the Rebels defence is in for a pounding.
The Rebels may push the Highlanders all the way, but look to the Smiths to take control late in the game and pull off a win.
There are five changes to the Highlanders team that beat the Waratahs. Wingers Pat Osborne and Jack Wilson form a new back-three partnership with Ben Smith, Luke Whitelock starts at blindside flank, Joe Wheeler returns to the second row and Ash Dixon is at hooker.
No 2 James Hanson starts ahead of Pat Leafa in the only change for the hosts.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Highlanders 3, Rebels 1
In Melbourne: Rebels 1, Highlanders 1
STATS AND FACTS
– The Rebels have won their last two matches against sides from New Zealand and are aiming for three consecutive wins against teams from across the Tasman for the first time; they have lost three of four against the Highlanders, though.
– Despite averaging 24.5 points scored across their four matches against the Highlanders, the Rebels have only defeated them once.
– The Highlanders have conceded only nine points in the first half of their last three matches, though they've conceded 48 points in the second half of those fixtures.
– Lima Sopoaga has scored 42 points so far this season, the seventh most of any player but the most of any player who is yet to score a try.
– For the second week in a row a Rebels player (Jonah Placid) beat eight defenders in a single match, the equal most of any Rebels player since Tom English beat 11 in round three in 2014.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Rebels||Jack Debreczeni (38)||Ben Meehan (3)||Tom English (259)||Sean McMahon (49)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (42)||Ben Smith (3)||Ben Smith (340)||Shane Christie (49)|
Rebels – 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timpani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Reece Hodge.
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 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
Photo: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images