The Otago Highlanders will look to extend their unbeaten start to the Super 15 season in Wellington this weekend while defending champions Queensland Reds journey to South Africa.
The Highlanders have beaten the Waikato Chiefs, Canterbury Crusaders and NSW Waratahs to top the New Zealand Conference and now face the Hurricanes who are playing at home for the first time this season.
The Hurricanes returned home with nine points after a three-week tour to South Africa and Australia, losing to the Western Stormers but posting back-to-back wins over the Golden Lions and Western Force.
Overall, the Hurricanes hold the advantage over the Highlanders in Super Rugby, winning 10 of their 17 encounters and four of their six home games.
The Reds, who have also made an unbeaten start to the tournament, have made six changes for Saturday’s match against the Coastal Sharks in Durban which kicks off their two-game South African tour.
Ben Lucas will start at fly-half with the tournament’s leading point scorer Mike Harris shifted to inside centre and Rod Davies named at fullback.
Enduring a tough start
In the forward line, loose head prop Greg Holmes and lock Van Humphries will get their first starts of the campaign, while open side flanker Beau Robinson and number eight Radike Samo return to the starting fifteen.
“We’ve endured a tough and physical start to our season so it’s important we continue to manage our resources by providing opportunities to our entire squad,” coach Ewen McKenzie said.
“Our bench has been giving us a huge lift in matches and a number of those guys warrant a starting opportunity as we enter a complicated stage of our campaign.”
The Sharks, who won their first match of the season against the Lions last weekend, have Springbok forward Jean Deysel and scrum-half Conrad Hoffmann back in the team.
The Reds have split their eight matches in Durban, winning four times.
The Stormers face a tricky match against the Auckland Blues in Cape Town on Friday to preserve their lead at the top of the South Africa conference.
The Blues bounced back from dropping their opening two games to upset the Bulls in Pretoria last weekend and have won four of their six visits to Newlands.
The Blues will be without suspended back Rene Ranger and injured World Cup-winning blindside flanker Jerome Kaino, while the Stormers are confident that lock Rynhardt Elstadt and Springbok loose head prop Deon Carstens will play for the first time this season.
“This Blues side force their opponents into making mistakes and we saw how they did that at Loftus Versfeld [Bulls] last week,” Stormers’ coach Allister Coetzee said.
“It has never been easy to win at Loftus but this team did just that. The Blues have from the outset been tough and decisive.”
Jake White’s unbeaten ACT Brumbies face a big test against the Chiefs in Mt Maunganui on Friday.
The Brumbies have won both their opening two games under the South African World Cup-winning coach but this represents their biggest challenge so far in the southern hemisphere provincial championship.
The Chiefs have beaten the Crusaders and Blues and their front-row of Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger and Sona Taumalolo will make it tough for the Brumby front-row of Dan Palmer, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander.
Elsewhere, the NSW Waratahs host Western Force and the Rebels face South Africa’s Central Cheetahs in Melbourne, while the Crusaders, Bulls and Lions have byes. — AFP