Preview: Highlanders v Sharks
Thursday, April 30, 2015 James Mortimer Getty Images
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Played 17 (1998-2015)
Highlanders wins: 7
Sharks wins: 10
Highlanders points: 428
Sharks points 404
Last match: Highlanders 27 Sharks 31, 19 July 2014 (Elimination Final)
Round 12 teams: http://bit.ly/1GJXsxF
Form: Losing to the Brumbies in Canberra stifled the team’s momentum, the 'Lander now sit sixth overall just one competition point ahead of the seventh placed Waratahs.
With the Hurricanes and Chiefs setting the pace, Jamie Joseph and his troops will be keen to notch their third win in four encounters against the men from Durban.
With a 6-3 current record and a three match overseas tour to Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Perth to come, how effectively the Highlanders perform over the next month could define their season.
The Sharks are tenth overall and come into this contest with three straight losses, and defeat in Dunedin could result in the South African's mathematical chances slimming further.
The troops from Durban boast plenty of Springboks but they have not been quick to fire in 2015, but they will feel they have the squad on paper to match fire with fire against the Highlanders.
Not to mention the fact that the Sharks have won four of their last five in the Deep South, winning in 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2004 – and in 2013 the Highlanders narrowly won 25-22 despite both outfits scoring three tries apiece.
Key Players: This will be one of the biggest challenges of the season for the likes of Kane Hames and Josh Hohneck, coming up against a rival front row with two frontline Springboks.
The same applies for Gareth Evans and Dan Pryor in the loose, against internationals that would love to remind the rugby world of their class.
The return of the three All Blacks cannot be denied, Aaron and Ben Smith, along with Malakai Fekitoa, add a level of composure and class that is the equal of any Super Rugby back division - and they were missed last week.
The visiter’s backline on the other hand hasn’t been able to dominate through the campaign, but JP Pietersen, Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane represent enough of a threat to ensure the hosts do not take them lightly.
One feels if this game is to be won for the away team, it will be via the likes of Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira – the four internationals have the power game to rattle the Highlanders.
Squad update: This week Joseph, has made four changes to the starting forward pack following the loss to Brumbies on the road in round 11.
Josh Hohneck returns to tighthead prop, Mark Reddish has recovered from injury to replace Joe Wheeler who suffered a grade 3 MCL tear last week and both Gareth Evans and Dan Pryor make the starting team.
The Highlanders three All Blacks, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa return to the field after their one round rest and the versatile Richard Buckman comes into the second-five position to cover for Shaun Treeby.
Director of Rugby Gary Gold warns that the sixth-placed Highlanders, current qualifiers (and hopeful of remaining that way) and a dangerous attacking side, are worthy of strong respect.
“They have real game-breakers and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us on Friday,” he admits.
“I don’t think it gets much tougher than what we have coming on Friday.”
He has welcomed back hooker Bismarck du Plessis, lock Stephan Lewies and JP Pietersen into the starting line-up, all three Springboks bolstering the side.
The Highlanders host the Sharks on Friday, 1 May, in Dunedin. Kick off at 7.35pm NZST. For tickets, click here.
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