The Highlanders will be keen to narrow the gap on the Hurricanes in the New Zealand Conference when these sides meet in Dunedin on Friday.
The home side, who won the Super Rugby title in 2015, will be highly motivated as they have lost their last three matches against the Hurricanes, who won the competition in 2016.
An added incentive for the Highlanders is their outstanding home record which they will be determined to protect as they are unbeaten in Dunedin in 2018 and have won five matches so far in their own backyard – against the Blues, Stormers, Crusaders, Brumbies and Lions.
Each of the Highlanders’ last eight games at home against the Hurricanes have been decided by a margin of seven points or fewer, though the Dunedin side have picked up just three wins in that span (five losses).
The Highlanders have won nine of their last 11 New Zealand derbies when playing as hosts, including wins in their last three such fixtures. In fact, the men from Dunedin have won their last 11 games in succession at home – the last and only time they won more was a 13-game streak from 2000 to 2002.
By contrast, the Hurricanes will not lack any motivation themselves as they came off second best against the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend. That result was a blow to the men from Wellington, who were trailing the defending champions by just one point in the standings before that match. But their defeat means that Chris Boyd’s troops are now five points behind the Crusaders on the table with a game in hand.
But despite that loss, the Hurricanes have conceded the fewest metres of any side this season, allowing their opponents just 348 metres with ball in hand, while they have also missed the fewest tackles of any side (19.6 per game).
Highlanders caretaker head coach Mark Hammett, who stands in for Aaron Mauger this weekend after the passing of Mauger’s mother, is glad to be back in Dunedin.
“We have had four of our last five weeks on the road so the guys are excited about playing at home,” he said.
“We want to give a huge push towards making the play-offs this week before we hit the June break. The players are really looking forward to being back under the roof in front of a vocal home crowd.”
The last time the teams met: These sides met in Wellington in Round Six when the Hurricanes claimed a 29-12 victory. The home side outscored the Highlanders four tries to two with Ben Lam crossing for a brace and Beauden Barrett and Vince Aso also dotting down. Barrett also kicked three conversions and his younger brother Jordie succeeded with a penalty. For the Highlanders, Waisake Naholo scored two tries and Lima Sopoaga added a conversion.
Team news: The Highlanders have named 10 current or past All Blacks in their starting line-up for this derby.
In what promises to be a blockbuster of an occasion, the New Zealand Conference clash will give both teams the opportunity to throw everything at it in the last round robin game before the June Test break.
After a series of good performances off the bench, front-row strong man Kalolo Tuiloma earns his first start of the season, while Liam Squire’s barnstorming effort against the Reds ensures a start on the blindside for the big All Black back-row.
Luke Whitelock returns at number eight with livewire scrum-half Aaron Smith partnering Lima Sopoaga in the halves and talisman co-captain Ben Smith back calling the shots from full-back after a week away.
Fresh from his selection in the All Blacks, versatile loose forward Shannon Frizell will have some very experienced company on the bench in the form of Liam Coltman, Elliot Dixon and Richard Buckman who have collectively tasted the half-time oranges in Super Rugby 216 times.
Meanwhile, Hurricanes captain Brad Shields will become just the 14th player to bring up 100 appearances for the team.
The match will be the 99th Super Rugby appearance for Shields who also started for the Hurricanes against the British and Irish Lions in 2017.
Shields will join Tana Umaga, Rodney So’oialo, Andrew Hore, Cory Jane, Victor Vito, Jeremy Thrush, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Neemia Tialata, Julian Savea, Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara to reach the milestone in the club’s 23-year history.
All Blacks squad member Vaea Fifita has been bracketed on the bench with Murray Douglas as assessments continue to be made as to the state of his fitness after he suffered a bone bruise in his shoulder against the Reds.
A decision on whether or not Fifita takes his place on the bench would likely be made on Thursday.
There is a confirmed change in the reserves where utility back Wes Goosen returns after a lengthy lay-off after he fractured his jaw against the Chiefs on April 13.
2018: Hurricanes won 29-12 in Wellington
2017: Hurricanes won 41-15 in Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 27-20 in Wellington
2016: Highlanders won 17-16 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 21-14 in Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 56-20 in Napier
2015: Hurricanes won 20-13 in Dunedin
2014: Highlanders won 18-16 in Wellington
2014: Highlanders won 35-31 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 49-44 in Wellington
2013: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Kalolo Tuiloma, 2 Ash Dixon (cc), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Richard Buckman
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Jordie Barrett, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Michael Fatialofa, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Vaea Fifita/Murray Douglas, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen
Date: Friday, June 1
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Mabey (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)