High stakes as Hurricanes, Highlanders battle

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 16/05/2014
Conrad Smith
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ

KEY MAN: Hurricanes centre Conrad Smith takes part in a Hurricanes training session at Westpac Stadium.

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Nobody should be under any illusion just how high the stakes will be at Westpac Stadium tonight.

It's not quite a knockout match, but a loss would put a serious, and potentially terminal, dent in one of the Hurricanes' or Highlanders' hopes of reaching the Super Rugby playoffs.

The sides are tied on 30 competition points, sixth and seventh respectively on the competition ladder and both faced with a tough run home.

With a game in hand the Highlanders' season is arguably in less peril, but with away trips to Christchurch and Sydney to come, coach Jamie Joseph needs all the breathing space he can get.

Likewise the Hurricanes cannot afford to blink. With a bye in the final round they will have just four more matches to book a place in the post-season.

It's a backdrop that has ramped up the pressure in both camps, with the injury and suspension-hit Highlanders delaying naming their team until late yesterday afternoon.

First five-eighth Lima Sopoaga was ruled out with an ankle injury and, without senior prop Chris King, the Highlanders' scrum will be a going concern with an inexperienced bench including Argentinian recruit Matias Diaz.

There are some cracking matchups, most notably at halfback where TJ Perenara will lift against Aaron Smith, and centre where the king, Conrad Smith, squares up against the prince, Malakai Fekitoa.

But the teamsheets firm the Hurricanes' favouritism for a match that's clearly seen coaches Mark Hammett and Alama Ieremia look back to their 35-31 loss in Dunedin in round six.

On that occasion a poorly executed kick-chase game and an inability to get out of their half proved costly.

And as much as things have changed in the weeks since, they have also remained the same.

The Highlanders play a territorial game and prey on their opponent's errant attempts to clear the ball out of their own half.

In fullback Ben Smith they have the most damaging counter-attacker in the game and in halfback Aaron Smith one of the best kicking halfbacks.

Tim Bateman's selection at second five-eighth ahead of Alapati Leiua gives an insight into the Hurricanes' mindset.

Bateman has vision that few possess. He sees space and will be a second set of eyes for halves Perenara and Beauden Barrett, telling them when and where to kick.

Wing Cory Jane gave an insight into the importance of the kickers getting their height and length right.

"Every week since the beginning of the year we've talked about when we kick to get wins, whether that's get the ball back or they drop it or we make it hard for them at the breakdown," he said.

Up front No 8 Nasi Manu's ability to grind his way up field, Shane Christie's ever presence, the ruck clearance of eager young tight forwards like Kane Hames and Liam Coltman, and a punchy midfield in Shaun Treeby and Fekitoa, make the Highlanders a physical challenge.

Hammett's moved to counter that by naming six forwards on his reserves bench.

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