Preview: Brumbies v Highlanders


The Super Rugby quarter-finals kick-off on Friday with an intriguing battle between the Brumbies and Highlanders taking place in Canberra.

Last week's win over the Chiefs was vitally important for the reigning champions as had they have lost then it would have been yet another long flight to South Africa. Fortunately they claimed the victory which means they only had to endure the much shorter visit to Australia.

In contrast, the Brumbies' last venture outside of Australasia came way back in March so it is clear to see who has enjoyed the favourable schedule leading up to this win-or-bust fixture. Their fans will hope that plays a role this week as they tackle a team in impressive form.

Supporters from Canberra will also be warmed by the fact they have history on their side as barring this season's negative in Invercargill when the Highlanders won 26-10, the Brumbies have won seven of their last nine games against the Dunedin side, which is hugely impressive.

The here and now though does lean towards the Highlanders as they have looked slick over recent rounds, and with last year's title success and the confidence it brings still fresh in the memory, many are predicting the first semi-final spot to go the way of the New Zealanders.

That win at Rugby Park means that the Highlanders are searching for back-to-back wins against the Brumbies for the first time since 2006, with talent aplenty in their squad led by a head coach whose reputation is growing by the game. They look to be the real deal once again.

The Brumbies, who will hope the return of David Pocock is a catalyst for them, should brace themselves as there's no doubt the Highlanders are two levels up on the opposition they have faced in recent matches. Realising that and dealing with it though are two different things.

The last time the teams met: Invercargill was the setting for their Round 10 clash as the Highlanders ran out 26-10 winners at Rugby Park. It was 0-3 to the Brumbies until the 40th minute when Aaron Smith found Lima Sopoaga with a great flat pass close to the try-line and when Ben Smith crossed soon after the break, the hosts pulled clear. Josh Mann-Rea scored from a driving maul but Sopoaga's boot sealed victory.

Players to watch: If the Brumbies are going to win this game then their driving maul could be how they manage it. Stephen Moore has seven tries to his name this season, which proves just how effective the set-piece has been for the Australian side. As mentioned the Brumbies scored from the maul in this season's previous meeting so if they can get their set-up right, the Highlanders could well have no answer.

One player the Brumbies could have no answer to is Waisake Naholo, who looks a hungry wing at the moment. When Naholo goes searching for ball the opposition is in trouble and it promises to be a tough 80 minutes for Robbie Coleman. Liam Squire could also do some damage with his carries and pace so keep an eye out for him, with the back-row battle standing out as being a thriller between six excellent players.

Team news: The return of David Pocock is such a fillip for Brumbies fans but losing Rory Arnold dampens that news somewhat. Robbie Coleman is also back in the XV after three weeks of strong performances in the John I Dent Cup. He replaces James Dargaville on the left wing. In the front-row, Ruan Smith will start at tighthead prop with Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin named on the bench after recovering from an injury.

The Highlanders have made two changes to their starting line-up as Liam Squire earns a nod at number eight after impressing from the bench last week, meaning a move for the versatile Luke Whitelock to lock. After recovering from illness co-captain Shane Christie is back on the side of the scrum replacing James Lentjes while Josh Hohneck and Ash Dixon will both make their 50th Super Rugby appearances for the team.

Form: The Brumbies have won five of their last six games with that defeat coming on July 8 when they went down 40-15 to the Blues. However, it's worth noting that those victories were against some of the weaker outfits of 2016 as they beat the Bulls, Rebels, Sunwolves, Reds and Force, with four of those coming on home soil. Matt Toomua has been playing nicely but there are concerns over shaky full-back Aidan Toua.

The Highlanders are in even better form as they have won six of their last seven games, with their latest coming against the Chiefs after what was a tough tour schedule. Their run of form began with a win over this Brumbies side in April, with other impressive results coming against the Chiefs (May 7), Crusaders and Jaguares. Jamie Joseph has managed his squad very well over recent months and it is paying off.

Prediction: While beating Brumbies won't be an easy proposition, the Super Rugby holders should be good enough to win. Highlanders by 10.

Previous results:

2016: Highlanders won 26-10 in Invercargill
2015: Brumbies won 31-18 in Canberra
2013: Brumbies won 30-19 in Dunedin
2012: Brumbies won 33-26 in Canberra
2011: Highlanders won 26-20 in Invercargill
2010: Brumbies won 31-3 in Canberra
2009: Brumbies won 33-31 in Dunedin
2008: Brumbies won 22-20 in Canberra

The teams:

Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano (cc), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Stephen Moore (cc), 1 Scott Sio
Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 James Dargaville, 24 Lausii Taliauli

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Luke Whitelock, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Te Aihe Toma, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Rob Thompson

Date: Friday, July 22
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
Kick-off: 18:05 local (08:05 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe, Nic Berry
TMO: George Ayoub