Conrad Smith expects more of the same
Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith is bracing himself for another cliff- hanger in Dunedin tonight.
And, not just because he believes the five New Zealand franchises are matched more evenly than ever before this season.
History tells us the rivalry between the Hurricanes and Highlanders is one of the closest in Super Rugby.
An average score before their last match was 23-21 in the Hurricanes' favour and it played out nearly to script when wing Julian Savea stole a 26-20 win in the final minutes.
The Highlanders had won their earlier match in Wellington 19-17 and in the wake of a one-point thriller against the Crusaders, Smith isn't expecting a blowout at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
"In terms of New Zealand I just don't see a single team that will stand out or drop off," he said. "I think you will see five teams where games are going to come down to intercepts or bounce of the ball. It'll be good to watch, but it will be bloody tough to play."
He is expecting the Highlanders to come out all guns blazing after losing their opening two matches to the Chiefs and Cheetahs.
"They will be hurting. Any rugby player knows what it's like to come off losses, two in a row; we know ourselves what that does to your motivation," he said.
"That will make our job tougher, but we just have to stick to a game we are starting to grow belief in. I think it's worked well in all three games. Obviously we're not perfect by any means, we have a bit to work on, but this is another chance to show our improvement this weekend."
The Hurricanes finalised their team yesterday, with hooker Motu Matu'u's shoulder passed fit, but Jeffery Toomaga-Allen ruled out with a sternum injury, meaning Ash Dixon and Reggie Goodes will sit in the reserves.
But the improvements Smith is looking for will mostly need to come in the backs, where dropped ball and poor kicking have cost the side dearly in recent weeks.
James Marshall's selection at fullback suggests a more territorial approach could be used to turn the Highlanders' experienced pack around.
Men like Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock prefer to ply their trade with the ball in front of them.
The Hurricanes will have noted the Cheetahs' success in rushing the Highlanders on defence and with high balls launched into the middle of the park.
Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett was wary of typecasting the Highlanders after last year's match became a helter-skelter out wide game.
Indeed, with a back three of Kade Poki, Hosea Gear and Ben Smith there is plenty of sense in the home side heaving the ball wide on a dry track.
But the truth is that coach Jamie Joseph's side is best when it grinds down opponents, launches from the set piece and dominates territory.
Colin Slade's return at first five-eighth, Jarrad Hoeata's selection at lock and Chris King coming in at tighthead prop all suggest that could be the case.
The unknown for Joseph will be rookie centre Jason Emery, a Manawatu playmaker known more for his running game than his tackling.
He can expect some attention from Savea and Alapati Leiua, who have made a habit this season of coming off their wings from the set piece.
The midfield has been an Achilles heel for the Highlanders so far, not helped by injuries to Ma'a Nonu (knee) and Shaun Treeby (hamstring).
It's a major concern considering the side's complete inability to make any inroads in the middle of the park against the Cheetahs.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Highlanders: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Jason Emery, Phil Burleigh, Hosea Gear, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Brad Thorn, Chris King, Andrew Hore (c), Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Brayden Mitchell, Ma'afu Fia, Jake Paringatai, TJ Ioane, Fumiaki Tanaka, Lima Sopoaga, Buxton Popoalii.
Hurricanes: James Marshall, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito, Karl Lowe, Brad Shields, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Ben May, Motu Matu'u, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Reggie Goodes, James Broadhurst, Faifili Levave, Chris Smylie, Tusi Pisi, Andre Taylor.
The Dominion Post