Savea, Naholo key in Kiwi thriller

The match-up between wingers Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo will be a fascinating and potentially decisive subplot to Friday’s clash between the Hurricanes and Highlanders in Wellington, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

When last year’s finalists met in the second week of the competition, the Highlanders held on for a narrow one-point win. However, Naholo was unable to feature in that clash due to injury, while Savea was battling with some poor early-season form.

Since then, both sides have made considerable progress, with Naholo returning stormingly to the Highlanders while Savea has rediscovered some good form for the Canes.

The two big men will line up opposite each other on Friday and the duel between the All Blacks wingers should make for riveting viewing. Savea is also one of five players who were internally suspended for the Canes’ last match against the Reds after breaking a team curfew, and this should add to his motivation.

Along with Savea, Victor Vito, Cory Jane, Chris Eves and Ardie Savea have all served their punishments and will return to action against the Highlanders, while in another boost for the Canes, captain Dane Coles is back after overcoming a concussion.

Again, it should be a fascinating encounter between two top New Zealand sides that boast different strengths and styles of play.

As illustrated by’s Opta-powered stats, the Hurricanes top the stats in terms of carries and metres made (1,315 and 5,797), while the Highlanders are the team that has kicked the most from hand.

The Highlanders have hit some outstanding form in recent weeks and are on a three-match winning streak. They’ll be once again looking to apply pressure through their efficient kicking game that is predominated by well-weighted contestable kicks, while the Canes will look to strike through their outstanding ball runners.

Overall: Hurricanes 14, Highlanders 13
In Wellington: Hurricanes 7, Highlanders 6

– The Highlanders have won five of their last seven games against the Hurricanes, including the 2015 Super Rugby final.
– Only one of the last 16 games between these teams has been decided by more than the value of a converted try, with each team accruing eight wins in that span.
– The Hurricanes have won 18 of their last 22 games at home, although three of the four losses in that period came against New Zealand opposition. 
– The Hurricanes have not trailed at the half-time break since round two this season, which was the last time they faced the Highlanders. Since then they’ve led at half-time on eight occasions and been level once.
– Of the 12 players so far this season to attempt more than 40 shots at goal, Lima Sopoaga is the second-most accurate at 75% (Leali'ifano, 76%).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Hurricanes Beauden Barrett (122) Julian Savea (5) Beauden Barrett (550) Ardie Savea (113)
Highlanders Lima Sopoaga (114) Matt Faddes (6) Ben Smith (740) Shane Christie (96)

Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff To'omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reggie Goodes.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Lonu Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ngani Laumape, 23 Jason Woodward.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 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 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.

Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)

Photo: Joel Ford/Getty Images

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Craig Lewis