Front up or slide backwards for Hurricanes

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 21/03/2014
Brad Thorn
Getty Images
THORN IN THEIR SIDE: Brad Thorn is back to boost the Highlanders' pack.

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One step forward will become at least two steps back if the Hurricanes do not front against the Highlanders in Dunedin tonight.

The pressure eased on coach Mark Hammett last week, but his side must prove they are more than just occasional flat-track bullies as their Super Rugby season heads into its fifth match.

Hammett's situation remains precarious.

He extracted the attacking talent from his squad during a nine-try rout over the Cheetahs to end an eight-game slide that stretched into last season.

Against the Highlanders he will settle for a win of any margin in a match that has been traditionally close, regardless of form.

Where the Cheetahs' wide defence opened easy yards up the middle, the Hurricanes will have to graft to get the gain line, as tends to be the case against Jamie Joseph-coached sides.

The space at Forsyth Barr will be wider and probably the rationale for playing dual opensides Ardie Savea and Jack Lam.

The Hurricanes obvious point of attack is in the backs where they are sure to run wings Julian Savea and Alapati as well as their loose forwards in the direction of Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga.

Interestingly, the TAB have installed the southerners as favourites despite the fact the away side have won eight of the last 11 matches between the sides.

The Highlanders advantage is they have already played two New Zealand teams, beating the Blues and losing narrowly to the Chiefs.

The Hurricanes must adjust having played three South African sides and the Brumbies and Hammett rightly noted there was a greater emphasis on technique in the New Zealand derbies.

Joseph's side are well drilled in that area and in openside Shane Christie have found a quality operator, but have gambled on Elliot Dixon in the unfamiliar role of blindside.

Notably the southerners have conceded on average just seven penalties per match this season, the lowest in the competition.

The Hurricanes will hope the presence and pressure of Lam and Savea can sway that statistic at the breakdown.

They will need possession to be effective and lock Jeremy Thrush's unavailability is a blow against a Highlanders pack bolstered by the return of Brad Thorn.

Neither side boasts a particularly impressive defensive record and a high scoring affair would not surprise. Tackling went out the window during last year's fixture in Wellington before the Highlanders prevailed 49-44.

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Hammett must demand a tighter screen, especially in the midfield, where Malakai Fekitoa is a major threat.

Hammett is expecting the match to be played at pace and believes Forsyth Barr's indoor stadium dictates a frenetic pace.

"One thing for us is we've noticed the two times we've been down there the ball seems to be in play a lot more," he said.

"It's a very different atmosphere with the music [closed in] ... We've talked about it as a team that maybe because the crowd is so close a lot of kicks don't seem to go out and there is a lot of counter attack, a lot of quick throws.

"It might even just be players get excited about wanting to play because there's no conditions down there in terms of wind and rain."

That may be why fullback Ben Smith is so effective on his home ground and with wing Patrick Osborne back from injuries the Highlanders have wide threats of their own.

AT A GLANCE

Sky Sport 1, 7.35, tonight

Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)

TAB odds: Highlanders $1.75, Hurricanes $2.00

Hurricanes: Marty Banks, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Hadleigh Parkes, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Chris Smylie, Faifili Levave, Ardie Savea, Jack Lam, James Broadhurst, Mark Reddish, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Chris Eves, John Schwalger, Mark Abbott, Adam Hill, TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor, Andre Taylor.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (co-captain), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Phil Burleigh, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (co-captain), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Brad Thorn, Ma'afu Fia, Liam Coltman, Kane Hames. Reserves; Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, Chris King, Jarrad Hoeata, TJ Ioane, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Shaun Treeby.

- Fairfax Media

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