Preview: Highlanders v Brumbies


The Highlanders will be eager to end a two-match losing run when they play host to the Brumbies at Rugby Park, Invercargill on Saturday.

Defeats to the Reds and Sharks have left them off the pace in New Zealand as the Chiefs now sit seven points clear of them at the summit.

Therefore this game is a must-win and they are fortunate that the Brumbies also find themselves in a sticky patch, compounded by injuries ruling out Stephen Moore and Joe Tomane. Also absent is Henry Speight, so they head to New Zealand depleted after losing to the Crusaders.

One positive for the visitors is the return from suspension of David Pocock, who scored a hat-trick of tries the last time these two sides met in 2015. However, it's tough to see the Wallaby flank having such a say on the scoreboard due to this year's new laws at the lineout.

What may encourage Brumbies supporters of a win on the road is the fact their team has won seven of their last eight matches against this week's opponents, including their last three. Furthermore the Highlanders have conceded 94 points against the Brumbies in those three games.

It is apparent though that this Brumbies squad is struggling, for whatever reason, to recapture the form that has made them such a threat over recent seasons in Super Rugby.

Being blown away by the Chiefs and Crusaders in such emphatic fashion will give the Highlanders extra hope of getting back to winning ways and with wing Patrick Osborne back in the side and those Brumbies injuries, we expect a home victory.

The last time these teams met: The Brumbies won last season's meeting in Canberra 31-18 as tries from Henry Speight and a hat-trick from David Pocock. Christian Lealiifano kicked 11 points while in reply the Highlanders carded tries from Shaun Treeby and Dan Pryor in defeat.

Players to watch: Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon should get a decent amount of game-time this week due Liam Coltman's absence and we expect him to relish that against a Stephen Moore-less Brumbies. Dixon ticks a lot of boxes as a number two and will combine well with his back row trio of Elliot Dixon, Shane Christie and Liam Squire around the field. Rob Thompson's return to midfield is also a boost to the hosts.

For the Brumbies a lot will rest on the shoulders of David Pocock because of the absence of Moore. He must lead this team from the front and we don't expect anything less on Saturday. Fresh after his ban, the flanker will be everywhere but it could well be in a losing cause.

Team news: A toe injury to Liam Coltman and the suspension of Jason Emery has forced changes to the Highlanders team. Coltman looks set to be sidelined for several weeks and Emery will sit out the next four weeks. Ash Dixon comes in for Coltman and Rob Thompson returns to the midfield. Alex Ainley is the only other change to the forward pack with Joe Wheeler rotating to the bench. Patrick Osborne returns on the left wing and Jack Wilson shifts on to the right sideline, meaning that Matt Faddes is set to make his impact from the replacements bench.

The Brumbies have David Pocock back from suspension at openside flanker, meaning Jarrad Butler shifts to number eight and Jordan Smiler is on the bench. Injuries to Joe Tomane (knee) and Stephen Moore (calf) have forced a reshuffle for the side that will be playing its first match in New Zealand in 2016. Nigel Ah Wong gains his first start on the wing, while Josh Mann-Rea is named to start the match at hooker. Allan Alaalatoa is named to start his second match of the season, replacing Scott Sio at loosehead prop, who moves to the bench. Joining Alaalatoa and Mann-Rea at tighthead prop will be Ruan Smith. Also earning a first start for the season is 21-year old lock Tom Staniforth.

Form: It's been a tough three weeks for the Highlanders as a shock loss at the Reds sent them into their bye week on a sour note. It was supposed to be a positive return at home to the Sharks last week but things didn't go to plan as they lost 15-14 at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The Brumbies are also in a bad patch as a narrow win over the Waratahs came either side of home hammerings at the hands of the Chiefs and Crusaders. They shipped over 88 points in those defeats and will have to tighten their defence if they are to win this one in Invercargill.

Prediction: Despite the recent record the Brumbies have over this week's opponents, we can't look past the hosts here. Highlanders by ten.

Previous results:

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
2007: Brumbies won 29-10 in Dunedin

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes

Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Jarrad Butler, 7 David Pocock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Ruan Smith, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Allan Alaalatoa
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Blake Enever, 21 Jordan Smiler, 22 Joe Powell, 23 James Dargaville

Date: Saturday, April 30
Venue: Rugby Park, Invercargill
Kick-off: 19:35 (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Kane McBride
TMO: Aaron Paterson