Super Rugby Match Preview
Saturday, 24th March
Hurricanes vs Highlanders
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kickoff: 19h35 Local Time, 06h35 GMT, 08h35 SA Time
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Possibly the game of the weekend – the one you should set some time aside to watch or programme that PVR to record it for later viewing.
This promises to be a humdinger of a game.
Coming off a bye might not be the ideal preparation for a game as big as this one. The Hurricanes will need to click into gear immediately as the Highlanders are on top form, and will be full of confidence that they have a good chance of taking down the ‘Canes colours after their win over the Crusaders last week.
Last week the Highlanders produced a game in which their defence was outstanding, and their attack accurate and razor sharp. Aaron Smith is playing as well as he has ever played, and Lima Sopoaga is showing New Zealand how much they will miss him when he leaves at the end of the Super season.
Smith and Sopoaga come up against what is probably the best half-back combination in the whole rugby world at the moment, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara. The latter is celebrating his 100th game of Super Rugby for the Hurricanes this week, and has been on form all year. This will be the 83rd time that Barrett and Perenara start a Super Rugby game together.
The spotlight will be on Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith too. Not for his form at fullback, but for his interaction with the referee, Mike Fraser. Sanzaar’s boss of referees, Lyndon Bray, has sent a letter to all the referees on the Sanzaar panel, which warned that officials will not tolerate a repeat of Smith’s actions during his side’s 25-17 win over the Crusaders last weekend.
Smith walked out from under his posts to demand referee Nick Briant consult the TMO when a conversion was about to be kicked.
I believe that Smith was within his rights, but it didn’t go down well with the establishment. He may just find himself subjected to some special attention by Mike Fraser.
TJ Perenara joins the Hurricanes 100 club on Saturday.
When he takes to the field for his 100th cap, he will be the 13th Hurricanes player to reach 100 games for the team, joing an exclusive club that includes Dane Coles, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Rodney So’oialo, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata, Tana Umaga, Victor Vito and Beauden Barrett who brought up the milestone against the Crusaders.
Perenara is part of a side that contains just one change to the starting side that downed the Crusaders 29-19 in their last match.
Murray Douglas replaces Vaea Fifita, who has a minor shoulder injury.
The ‘Canes have made two changes to the bench from that with All Blacks prop Jeff Toomaga-Allen returning after being side-lined with injury, replacing Marcel Renata. The other change sees Reed Prinsep come in for Blade Thomson.
Elliot Dixon gets his first start of the season for the Highlanders in the number six jersey. Dixon came off the bench and scored a try last week, producing a superb game of rugby in the process. He thoroughly deserves his promotion to the starting XV. He replaces the injured Liam Squire.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u replaces Dixon on the bench.
Up front, Tyrell Lomax gets his first start in the Highlanders jersey at tighthead prop.
Josh Ioane, has been named on the bench as back-up to Lima Sopoaga, and will play his debut game for the Highlanders should he take the field.
This game revolves around how well the Hurricanes start. They have something of a reputation of starting slowly after a bye, or a break in their season.
Last week the Highlanders downed the Crusaders, and they will arrive in Wellington riding on a wave of confidence. They are sitting at the top of the New Zealand conference table with three wins out of three starts. They have scored 99 points this season, thanks to 13 tries.
The Canes have lost one of their three starts, an almost inexplicable lapse against the Bulls in their first game of the season. Since then they have improved game by game. They are just one off the Highlanders in the try count, with 12 of their own.
A big contrast between the two teams is found in the ball carrying department. The Highlanders are supposed to be the “kickingest” team in New Zealand, yet they have carried the ball 339 times for 2223 meters. The ‘Canes have carried the pill 267 times for 1861 meters.
The kicking stats are almost identical. The Highlanders have kicked the ball 70 times, for 1838 meters gained, while the Hurricanes have kicked it 69 times, for 1837 meters gained.
The ‘Canes have made 74 handling errors, whilst the Highlanders have been very good, with just 58 handling errors.
The rest of their stats are pretty similar, except that the Highlanders have made 482 tackles and missed just 63, while the ‘Canes have made 387, and missed 69.
The one other stat worth considering is that the Highlanders have conceded just 33 turnovers on the ground, while the ‘Canes have given away 41.
Which brings me to the contest between the loose-forwards. Gareth Evans, Ardie Savea, and Brad Shields up against Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, and Elliot Dixon. It is going to be close, although I think that Savea and Shields have a slight edge over Hunt and Dixon.
This game will, however, be decided in the midfield and out on the fringes, and that is where the Hurricanes seem to be so much better equipped. Jordie Barrett, Julian Savea, Ben Lam, Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor are as potent a strike force as the modern game has seen, and then they have the likes of Vince Aso on the bench!
The Highlanders do have Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo with Tevita Li as their back three, but I am not totally convinced by the midfield of Walden and Thompson.
Perhaps the whole game will turn on the performance of the half-backs, and there the ‘Canes seem to have the edge.
Home-field advantage. A back division loaded with superb finishers, and Beauden Barrett running things.
The Highlanders are a great team, but the ‘Canes seem to have just one or two bits of artillery more than the visitors.
It is going to be very very close.
The Hurricanes, by 5.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Thomas Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Murray Douglas, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Chris Eves
Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Fraser Armstrong, 18 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Vince Aso
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Colman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Shannon Fizzell, 20 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Joshn Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes