The Highlanders will be looking to make it eight wins in a row when they travel to Perth to face the Western Force on Saturday.
We have seen that the Force are a different proposition when playing at home this season. Of their four home games in 2017, they have won two, while the two they have lost have only been by a margin of less than ten points. And in only one of those games have they trailed at half-time.
But things have changed drastically since the time when the Force used to enjoy a stranglehold on this weekend’s opposition. Between 2008 and 2014, the Force beat the Highlanders six games in a row. But they are not the force they used to be and in 2015 the last time the sides met in Perth, the Highlanders won 23-3 before following that up with a 32-20 victory in Otago last year.
The Highlanders have improved drastically against Australian opposition in general. The Otago outfit have won six of their last seven games on Australian soil after having just won one of their 15 previous excursions there.
Much like the Blues, the Highlanders only struggle against their compatriots and enjoy a hundred percent record against teams outside of New Zealand this season. Thy are on a seven-match winning streak and have scored over 40 points in four of those encounters.
They combine a deadly running game with an accurate kicking game. In fact, they are the most accurate kicking side in the competition with an 87 percent accuracy rate, 12 percent points higher than the Force. This, despite not having first-choice fly-half Lima Sopoaga available.
But Marty Banks has proved himself to be Mr Dependable from the tee and is an assured presence at pivot with silky passing skills also a part of his repertoire.
The Force will be boosted by the return of a number of players from injury and the inclusion of Peter Grant at fly-half. The former
Stormers man produced a calm, assured display in the win over the Jaguares last weekend which allowed his backline to flourish.
However, he can only do so if his side make sure they have enough possession against a Highlanders side that are extremely competitive at the breakdown.
The last time the teams met: The Highlanders won this one fairly easily despite the Force going into an early 14-0 lead. The Force scored initially through Dane Haylett-Petty and Ben McCalman but the Highlanders responded with tries from Patrick Osborne, Dan Pryor, Matt Faddes and Jason Emery to secure a comfortable 32-20 victory.
Team news: The Western Force have welcomed back into the side a host of players for their clash with the Highlanders in Perth on Saturday. Tatafu Polota-Nau returns as the starting hooker after missing the Jaguares match last week. Jermaine Ainsley will start at tighthead prop after recovering from an elbow injury he suffered against the Crusaders in Round Five. Brynard Stander is the only change in the back row, as the ferocious ball runner is set to start at openside flank. Veteran Peter Grant will start at fly-half after an impressive performance in Buenos Aires last week. Jono Lance will miss the game with an injured hand.
Inside centre Bill Meakes will captain the side for the first time and becomes the 12th man to do so, as he lines up next to centre partner Curtis Rona. In the back three, Luke Morahan returns from a fractured cheekbone and will start at full-back. In the reserves, Anaru Rangi and Tetera Faulkner will look to bring plenty of impact off the bench, along with locks Lewis Carmichael and Matt Philip who makes his return from an injured foot. Michael Ruru is the last inclusion in the reserves, returning from an ankle injury he suffered in Round 7 against the Kings.
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has made minimum changes to his starting XV after last weekend’s 17-10 win over the Bulls in Pretoria. In the back-line, there are two changes with Tevita Li coming into the run-on side for the suspended Waisake Naholo and Kayne Hammington starts at scrum-half in place of Aaron Smith, who is amongst the replacements. Li will start on the left wing with Patrick Osborne, who wore the number 11 jersey against the Bulls, shifting over to the right wing.
Meanwhile, in the forwards, Liam Coltman returns to start at hooker with Ash Dixon dropping down to the bench. Brown has also shuffled his back row with Elliot Dixon, who leads the side from number eight, swapping places with Gareth Evans who starts on the blindside flank. Also included amongst the replacements is All Black fly-half Lima Sopoaga who is set to return to action after recovering from a hamstring injury sustained in the Round 3 triumph against the Blues in Auckland.
Form: The Force have beaten the Reds, Kings and Jaguares while losing to the Waratahs, Brumbies, Crusaders, Blues, Lions, Chiefs, Sharks. This means they have won three of their 10 matches. However, they did win last weekend against the Jaguares in somewhat of an upset in Buenos Aires.
The Highlanders lost three of their opening four games against the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes while beating the Blues. Since then they have won seven in a row against the Brumbies, Rebels, Blues, Sunwolves, Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls.
2016: Highlanders won 32-20 in Otago
2015: Highlanders won 23-3 in Perth
2014: Force won 31-29 in Otago
2013: Force won 19-18 in Perth
2011: Force won 21-14 in Otago
2010: Force won 41-27 in Otago
2009: Force won 33-28 in Perth
2008: Force won 36-28 in Otago
Force: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes (c), 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Brynard Stander, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan
Replacements: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Lewis Carmichael, 21 Isireli Naisarani, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 James Verity-Amm
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Elliot Dixon (c), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rob Thompson
Date: Saturday, May 20
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 21:45 local (09:45 GMT)
Referee: Shuhei Kubo
Assistant Referees: Ed Martin, Damon Murphy
TMO: Ian Smith