Highlanders determined to turn tables on Force
The Highlanders sit on the edge of what will either be a ramp or a slide heading into tonight's game against the Western Force in Dunedin.
Coming off a bye week which was good reward for a solid start to the season which included a home win over the Blues and a close loss to the Chiefs, the Highlanders now face a five-week stretch which will help define their season.
They have five games until their next bye at Easter, and a trip to Auckland to take on the Blues which splits a run of four home games.
With a lineup that includes the Force, Hurricanes, Blues, Rebels and Bulls, a good team would be able to use the next month as a bit as a springboard for the season.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is not looking beyond tonight's game, however.
''That's all I'm really worried about. If you are talking about crunch games in round three, then you might be talking about the Blues, the Hurricanes or the Crusaders because we are ahead of them," Joseph said.
"It's one game at a time for us - we need to get that win over the Force which has eluded us the last five times we've played. We certainly aren't getting ahead of ourselves.''
The Force put the Highlanders on notice last week after a dominant first half against the Melbourne Rebels that helped them to a 32-7 win in Perth.
''We've got an opportunity to play in front of our home crowd against a real nuggety team which we really respect,'' Joseph said.
''We certainly aren't taking them lightly and we need to play well to beat them.''
The Highlanders have made a couple of selection tweaks coming back from the bye round, both of which will provide plenty of interest tonight.
The experiment of playing Malakai Fekitoa on the wing did not work out against the Chiefs, he was much better at centre in the win over the Blues.
He'll get a chance to show that was no fluke, with Kurt Baker getting his first start of the season for the Highlanders on the wing as Patrick Osborne continues to make his way back from an ankle injury.
Brad Thorn's rib problem meant there were few selection headaches amongst the forwards, although Joseph has saved himself the job of choosing between flankers Shane Christie and John Hardie by picking both of them.
''Their loose forwards are very good at the breakdown area and we think the combination of Hards and Christie together might play in our favour,'' Joseph said.
''All the loose forwards have been playing well and it was a hard decision but we've gone for those two guys.''
The Force, whose preparation for tonight's game included a hair-raising trip up Baldwin St, will use the same squad which performed so well against the Rebels.
Western Force coach Michael Foley said it was important for his side to make another early statement against the Highlanders.
''Our focus was to start the match strongly last weekend and it was pleasing to see the team do exactly that,'' he said.
''Our second half execution wasn't as precise. This week it's important for us to back up with another strong start and look to improve on our execution into the second half.''
Matt Hodgson, who led the side out for his 100th Super Rugby cap last weekend, will again captain the side, packing down in the backrow alongside in-form No. 8 Ben McCalman and flanker Angus Cottrell, who crossed for his second Super Rugby try last weekend.
Highlanders v Western Force, 7.35 tonight, Dunedin Stadium.
HIGHLANDERS: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Kurt Baker, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Chris King, Liam Coltman, Kane Hames. Reserves; Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, Craig Millar, Josh Bekhuis, Elliot Dixon, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Phil Burleigh.
FORCE: Jayden Hayward, Luke Morahan, Junior Rasolea, Kyle Godwin, Nick Cummins, Sias Ebersohn, Alby Mathewson, Ben McCalman, Matt Hodgson (captain), Angus Cottrell, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Sam Wykes, Kieran Longbottom, Nathan Charles, Pek Cowan. Reserves; Heath Tessmann, Tetera Faulkner, Ollie Hoskin, Adam Coleman, Brynard Stander, Ian Prior, Zack Holmes, Marcel Brache.
The Southland Times