The Highlanders should make it four wins on the bounce when they face the Sunwolves in what will be the first fixture between the sides.
Rugby Park in Invercargill is the setting for the match as the Highlanders’ campaign looks to have finally got motoring after a dismal start. Since losing three of their first four matches they have finally clicked with three triumphs, but are still well off the pace in New Zealand.
They’ll want five points on Saturday and having won 11 of their last 12 home games against teams from outside New Zealand – their only defeat in that run coming by a single point exactly a year ago against the Sharks – few pundits expect the Sunwolves to spring a surprise.
Speaking of the Japanese side, their two previous fixtures against New Zealand sides have seen them leak 133 points in total and score just 20 in return. They’re also yet to win away from home in Super Rugby, losing their previous 10 such games by an average margin of 30 points.
The omens subsequently don’t look good for Filo Tiatia’s charges as they look to bounce back from last Friday’s hammering at the Crusaders. But that is not leading to Highlanders head coach Tony Brown approaching the match with any over-confidence, stating: “The Sunwolves had a good win over the Bulls recently and will be a dangerous team if we allow them to play at speed, we will need a strong defensive effort.”
If they are solid defensively, the Highlanders’ attack should take care of the result and with Waisake Naholo back on the field, a strong back-row, spine and options wide out, this has the potential to be a runaway win for the improving home side in the deep south of New Zealand.
Players to watch: In the week the British and Irish Lions announced their touring squad, Waisake Naholo makes his return to Super Rugby for the Highlanders. On his day he is a nightmare for defences and if Lions fans don’t know already, they will see his talents on June 13 against the Dunedin franchise and possibly in the Test series. Also keep an eye on centre Matt Faddes as he deserves this start at 13. A deceptively quick player, expect Faddes to form a dangerous midfield partnership with Malakai Fekitoa on Saturday which will cause mayhem.
For the Sunwolves it is going to be all smiles from Fumiaki Tanaka when he looks into the eyes of his opponents. A fan and squad favourite during his three-year stint at the Highlanders, the scrum-half left the franchise at the end of last season but returns this week. He’ll want to give a strong account of himself in Invercargill before enjoying the after-match with his close friends such as lock Joe Wheeler.
Team news: Joe Wheeler and Liam Squire get starts for the Highlanders while the versatile Elliot Dixon moves to openside to give the loose trio a very strong look. In the backs Malakai Fekitoa moves in to 12 to make room for Matt Faddes at 13 and Tevita Li comes in on the wing. After a five-week break due to injury Waisake Naholo returns to the XV. Josh Renton, Teihorangi Walden and Sio Tomkinson are on the bench.
Willie Britz returns after missing last weekend’s defeat at the Crusaders and starts in place of Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, who drops to the bench. Facing his former team will be Japan scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, who is sure to receive a warm welcome. Elsewhere, William Tupou starts at outside centre, with Timothy Lafaele moving in to number 12 in place of Derek Carpenter who misses out on the matchday squad.
Form: The Highlanders enter this game on the back of successive victories over the Brumbies, Rebels and Blues. That run of results was much-needed following a disappointing start to the campaign that is still costing them as they sit 13 points adrift of the high-flying Crusaders.
The Sunwolves remain on one win after coming back down to earth with a bump at the Crusaders last weekend. On the back of beating the Bulls, the Japanese side were given a hiding in Christchurch. It promises to be another long evening in New Zealand for Ed Quirk and company.
Previous results: Yet to play.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Joe Wheeler, 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 Tom Franklin, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Teihorangi Walden, 23 Sio Tomkinson
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 William Tupou, 12 Timothy Lafaele, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Yuhimaru Mimura, 6 Edward Quirk (c), 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Kizu, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Shinya Makabe, 20 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Hayden Cripps, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi
Date: Saturday, April 22
Venue: Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill
Kick-off: 17:15 local (05:15 GMT)
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)