Preview: Highlanders v Rebels

That said, it is this sort of match that will determine how the southern men fare in 2012 and contenders, which the Highlanders regard themselves as, do win them.

VENUE & TIME: Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill, Friday March 30 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 1; Highlanders 1, Rebels 0.

LAST TIME: April 15, 2011 (Melbourne) – Rebels 18-40 Highlanders.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Highlanders are starting to have their depth tested, as Colin Slade (broken ankle, season), John Hardie (fractured toe, majority of season), Lima Sopoaga (shoulder, two months or so) and Nick Crosswell (knee, six weeks) are all long-term casualties. Andrew Hore is also missing this week. As yet, no back-up first-five has been named so Chris Noakes is the only regular left standing from the three who were in the original squad. On the plus side, two All Black forwards – Adam Thomson and Jarrad Hoeata – are available again. The Rebels had one gain and one loss on the hamstring score, with James O’Connor named to play after recovering from his muscle problem while Danny Cipriani heads to the MASH tent with a similar injury. Kurtley Beale is also back after calf problems.

Round 1: beat Chiefs 23-19 (a)
Round 2: beat Crusaders 27-24 (h)
Round 3: beat Waratahs 18-17 (h)
Round 4: beat Hurricanes 19-17 (a)
Round 5: lost to Brumbies 26-33 (a)

Round 1: bye
Round 2: lost to Waratahs 19-35 (h)
Round 3: lost to Reds 6-11 (a)
Round 4: lost to Cheetahs 26-33 (h)
Round 5: beat Force 30-29 (h)

The Highlanders suffered their first loss of the season at Canberra, when bad luck, some careless play and indiscipline at bad moments all conspired to compound their woes against a Brumbies side that proved adept at taking whatever chances they were offered. After four weeks of narrow wins against strong teams, it was the Highlanders turn to come up a few points short and as a result they lost top spot in the New Zealand conference to the Chiefs, whose four points for a bye allowed them to take over at the head of affairs.

The Rebels went the other way, winning their first match of the year after holding off a strong finish by the Force. For a while it looked easy for the Rebels, who had three tries and a 21-0 lead on the board inside the first quarter but their fluency disappeared when Cipriani left the field five minutes later. Just after the hour mark the Force actually hit the front, but Mark Gerrard’s penalty goal with seven minutes left proved to be the decisive score. After two narrow defeats in the preceding weeks, this win was the Melbourne team’s first victory in 13 attempts.

WHO'S HOT: Last year Adam Thomson played the house down in this match, and his early-season form in 2012 has been of a very high standard – a combination that will not please the Rebels. Now cast in the openside role after Hardie’s injury, Thomson will be a prominent figure around the park. Aaron Smith is getting a lot of media ink these days, and deserves it. He is playing well enough to keep Jimmy Cowan on the bench, and impressing with a quick clearance, good all-round skills and the ability to read play in a flash. Tamati Ellison is another who has started very well and his experience and calmness mean a lot in midfield. His form at present has a lot to do with his side’s lofty table position.

As the Rebels get into their season, few players have impressed more than hard-working skipper and No 8 Gareth Delve, whose all-round play and leadership are both on a high plane. Never one to shirk the tough stuff, he is one of those ‘follow me’ leaders who earn their men’s loyalty the hard way. Centre Lloyd Johansson has been around for a while and is known as a strong runner and rugged defender who should add starch to the midfield. Now with a few matchwinners in the backline, the Rebels need a tough go-to man in the middle of the park and Johansson could be that player. There will be a lot of interest in Kurtley Beale’s form, since on his day he can break a game open in minutes. No doubt the Highlanders will have plans to limit his running space, but he is still one of those players who can create a lot from very little.

WE THINK: Despite all their injury woes it’s hard to go past the Highlanders in this match, especially at Invercargill. If the home side can dominate through the forwards – and they are fielding a very good pack – they can control the tempo and play much of the game at the right end. The Rebels have an honest pack and some classy backs, but a Highlanders win, probably by no more than eight points, appeals as the likely result.

Highlanders: 1. Jamie Mackintosh (capt), 2. Jason Rutledge, 3. Chris King, 4. Josh Bekhuis, 5. Jarrad Hoeata, 6. James Haskell, 7. Adam Thomson, 8. Nasi Manu, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Chris Noakes, 11. Hosea Gear, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Tamati Ellison, 14. Kade Poki, 15. Ben Smith.

Replacements: 16. Brayden Mitchell, 17. Ma’afu Fia, 18. Culum Retallick, 19. Doug Tietjens, 20. Jimmy Cowan, 21. Phil Burleigh, 22. Buxton Popoali’i.

Rebels: 1. Nic Henderson, 2. Adam Freier, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Luke Jones, 5. Hugh Pyle, 6. Jarrod Saffey, 7. Tom Chamberlain, 8. Gareth Delve (capt), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. James O’Connor, 11. Cooper Vuna, 12. Lloyd Johansson, 13. Lachlan Mitchell, 14. Mark Gerrard, 15. Kurtley Beale.

Replacements: 16. Ged Robinson, 17. Rodney Blake, 18. Alistair Campbell, 19. Michael Lipman, 20. Nic Stirzaker, 21. James Hilgendorf, 22. Julian Huxley.

REFEREE: Marius Jonker (SA)