Preview: Highlanders v Hurricanes
HEAD TO HEAD: Played: 19, Hurricanes 11, Highlanders 8
WALKING WOUNDED: The Highlanders lost their most effective ball carrier when Nasi Manu broke a bone in his foot in round one. Now Dave Rennie must play a midfield with just 16 games of Super Rugby experience due to Ma'a Nonu's withdrawal, just minutes before last week's clash against the Cheetahs. His replacement Shaun Treeby didn't impress enough in the No 12 jersey during the 36-19 defeat and subsequently 19-year-old debutant Jason Emery will partner up with centre Phil Burleigh.
The Hurricanes have missed Cory Jane's spark on attack but were assured by Alapati Leuia that the No 14 jersey is in good hands as he picked off a game-winning intercept against the Crusaders. Uncontested scrums were a sad sight in the final stages of that match after both hookers, Dan Coles and Motu Matu'u, left the field with injuries. The latter is set to start this week but must first pass a fitness test on Thursday. Should he fail, Ash Dixon will don the No 2 while the free agent Jason Rutledge will be placed on the bench.
All the pre-season hype surrounding the Highlanders didn't even survive the first four rounds of competition. An ominous performance against the Chiefs wasn't rectified during a third round bye and things have gone from bad to worse. Injuries certainly haven't helped, either. But the Hurricanes should still be wary of the star-studded team from Dunedin which should eventually find its feet with Colin Slade back at first-five. Mark Hammett's men will have to find another gear at scrum time but they should dominate a shaky Highlanders line-out. That will provide play-maker Beaduen Barrett plenty of opportunities to bring lethal backs such as Julian Savea into the game from the set piece.
Even though the Hurricanes didn't deserve to triumph over the Crusaders, the fact that they were within reaching distance of a win at the eleventh hour shows their ability to compete for the full 80 minutes. The sight of Savea barging past world-class fullback Israel Dagg to score will also have done wonders for the confidence of their youthful backline, who have not yet reached their scintillating form from last year. Meanwhile, two first-up losses will not sit well with Joseph. Known for the hard edge he brings to teams he will not be happy after seeing his pack beaten up on their home turf. Expect a backlash from the southern men following a week of training they will most likely never forget. In front of a strong home crowd under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium the Highlanders will get up for this one and should win by 10.