Highlanders face tough run home
A win tonight won't qualify the Highlanders for a place in the Super Rugby playoffs, but a loss could very well kill off their 2012 finals aspirations.
Tonight's game against the Hurricanes will either give the Highlanders a much-needed boost or allow one of their main rivals a chance to pull level at the top of the home straight.
Jamie Joseph's men, even with three of their last six games being played at home, have a difficult run home, including the Hurricanes, Bulls, Crusaders, Chiefs and Reds.
Even the Blues, in two weeks' time, could prove to be a stumbling block.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs won't have it easy during the final rounds either, while the Crusaders arguably have an easier draw.
It makes for some potentially torrid derby games during the next few weeks, including tonight, when the Hurricanes will be keen to show they have improved from the team that lost narrowly to the Highlanders in the capital earlier in the season.
Criticised for being a team that relies too heavily on the individual brilliance of players such as Andre Taylor, Cory Jane, Victor Vito and young halfback TJ Perenara, the Hurricanes are better than last year, but have still been patchy.
Despite suffering even more injuries last week, the Highlanders have a more solid look to them.
A loose-forward crisis has forced the Highlanders to be inventive, with Adam Thomson moving across to the openside, a move made easier by the timely return from injury of Nick Crosswell.
Just how well the Highlanders do during the next few weeks will depend a lot on whether Crosswell can be as influential in his preferred position on the side of the scrum as he was as a makeshift lock early in the campaign.
How well will the Highlanders do without skipper Jamie Mackintosh running the cutter?
Mackintosh probably could have done with a spell before now, but there was never going to be a good time to rest one of the team's talismanic players.
There are no doubts over Chris King's ability to change sides in the scrum, but we don't know a lot about Ma'afu Fia at this level.
Phil Burleigh renews his midfield partnership with Tamati Ellison, thanks to Shaun Treeby's broken cheek, and the Highlanders won't lose much there.
Tonight's game could come down to something as simplistic as the collective effort of the Highlanders against the individual brilliance of the Hurricanes.
If that's the case, you would have to favour the home team to draw first blood in the scrap for a playoffs spot.
The race home during the final weeks of the regular season promises to be a gruelling contest among the New Zealand franchises.
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith, Siale Piutau, Tamati Ellison, Phil Burleigh, Hosea Gear, Mike Delany, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, Adam Thomson, Nick Crosswell, Jarrad Hoeata, Josh Bekhuis, Ma'afu Fia, Andrew Hore (captain), Chris King. Reserves: Jason Rutledge, Bronson Murray, Culum Retallick, Tim Boys, Jimmy Cowan, Chris Noakes, Kendrick Lynn.
HURRICANES: Andre Taylor, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith (captain), Charlie Ngatai/Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Karl Lowe, Faifili Levave, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Ben May, Dane Coles, Reg Goodes. Reserves: Motu Matu'u, Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, Brad Shields, Jack Lam, Chris Eaton, Tusi Pisi/Daniel Kirkpatrick, Bateman/Leiua.
The Southland Times