Revenge could well be in the air in Canberra this weekend as the Brumbies look to settle a 2016 score with the Highlanders in Super Rugby.
After bowing out at the quarter-final stage last year in controversial fashion at the hands of the New Zealanders, past hurt may resurface for the Brumbies as they look to make it three wins on the bounce this season, following victories against the Western Force and Waratahs.
The Brumbies felt they had scored a second-half try in that last-eight match but the officials said otherwise as the Highlanders held on, booking a place in the semi-finals, which meant the likes of Stephen Moore, David Pocock and Matt Toomua would say farewell with no title.
The Highlanders would then lose at the Lions in the next round and including that defeat into this campaign, they have now lost four games in succession. It’s fair to say injuries and the conference system hasn’t helped their cause but this is still a worrying start from them.
In past meetings between these two the Highlanders hold the upper hand as they have won their last two clashes with the Brumbies; the last time they won more in succession was a three-game streak from 2001 to 2003. What makes things worse for the Brumbies is that they have won just one of their last nine matches against New Zealand teams, with their eight defeats in that run coming by an average margin of 16.5 points.
The statistics further back a Highlanders’ success on Saturday as they’ve won on five of their last six visits to Australia, keeping their opponent tryless in two of their last three such fixtures. That will be music to the ears of Highlanders fans as they look for a much-needed win.
What the numbers fail to account for however is injuries and it is clear that the visitors will miss those currently on the treatment table, which is why there’s more than a sense the Brumbies have the slight edge that will get them over the finish line with their noses in front.
They are the ones with their tails up and in sport momentum can be crucial, with the Australians seeming primed to keep their good run of form going.
The last time these teams met: It was at the quarter-final stage of last season when the Highlanders edged to a 15-9 win in Canberra. Lima Sopoaga got them on the board with a penalty before Christian Leali’ifano levelled. Waisake Naholo then scored the first try of the match on 37 minutes to make it 10-9 at the break. Liam Squire crossed in the second-half for a six-point lead but there was then controversy as the Brumbies thought they had scored through Lausii Taliauli. However, replays were inconclusive that he made the line as the Highlanders held on to progress.
The Highlanders desperately need big games from Aaron Smith and Ben Smith on Saturday if they are to bounce back from last week’s defeat. Missing real quality due to the absence of Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo and Rob Thompson in the backline, the Smiths must be focal points for the Highlanders as they look to avoid a fourth loss in five games, which would leave their title hopes in tatters at this early stage.
Team news: Back-row Jordan Smiler will make his 50th appearance for the Brumbies on Saturday. Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham has made five changes to the starting line-up as they look to increase their lead at the top of the Australian Conference with a third straight win. There are recalls for prop Nic Mayhew, flanker Chris Alcock and winger James Dargaville, whilst hooker Robbie Abel, in for the injured Josh Mann-Rea, and second-row Blake Enever make their first starts of the season. Enever comes in for Rory Arnold who drops to the replacements.
Meanwhile for the Highlanders, head coach Tony Brown has made just three changes to his starting line-up for this match. Brown welcomes back Patrick Osborne from injury, gives young Otago back Sio Tomkinson his first start and brings in the hard working Alex Ainley to the engine room. On the bench hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate joins prop Siosuia Halanukonuka in returning from injury for this week’s match.
Form: The Brumbies seem to have turned a corner in their recent outings as they come into this fixture on the back of two wins. Those came following back-to-back losses but with Speight their chief try-scorer, they have shot up the standings and now top Australia’s conference.
In stark contrast the Highlanders sit bottom of the pile in New Zealand as their most recent loss to the ‘Canes leaves them 14 points off the pace-setting Chiefs. The Crusaders and Hurricanes are 11 and 10 points ahead of them respectively which shows how vital this game is.
2016: Highlanders won 15-9 in Canberra
2016: Highlanders won 23-10 in Invercargill
2015: Brumbies won 31-18 in Canberra
2013: Brumbies won 30-19 in Dunedin
2012: Brumbies won 33-26 in Canberra
2011: Highlanders won 26-20 in Invercargill
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Wharenui Hawera, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Jordan Smiler, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Blake Enever, 3 Allan Alaalatoa, 2 Robbie Abel, 1 Nic Mayhew
Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Scott Sio, 18 Ben Alexander, 19 Rory Arnold, 20 Tom Staniforth, 21 Lolo Fakaosilea, 22 De Wet Roos, 23 Jordan Jackson-Hope
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Patelesio Tomkinson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Fletcher Smith, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Matt Faddes
Date: Saturday, March 25
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)