Preview: Highlanders v Cheetahs
After losing their opener two weeks ago, the Highlanders are determined to bounce back with a win over the Cheetahs in Invercargill on Saturday.
The Dunedin-based franchise were amongst the pre-tournament favourites after coach Jamie Joseph bolstered his squad with several quality signings.
But they a suffered 41-27 drubbing against the Chiefs in their opener and despite picking up four points due to a bye last weekend will be eager to notch their first victory of the new campaign.
Brad Thorn's debut and the return of newly-appointed captain Andrew Hore will give the Highlanders a massive boost. The All Black duo's experience will prove invaluable, especially in the tight exchanges which was an area of concern for coach Joseph in previous campaigns.
Another worry is their defence which proved a liability in the loss to the defending champions and against the Cheetahs, who have several exciting runners, they will have to improve considerably in this department.
The Highlanders hold a huge psychological edge over their South African opponents, having won all seven of their previous encounters. However, on six of those seven occasions the Cheetahs lost by less than seven points and during their previous encounter (in Bloemfontein in 2012) the Highlanders had to dig deep before claiming a 36-33 win.
Despite losing 45-3 to the Chiefs last weekend, the Cheetahs received plenty of praise for sticking to their expansive style of play for the full 80 minutes.
The boys from Bloemfontein - unlike most of the other South African teams - enjoy a free flowing game and this could make them dangerous.
They have a well balanced team, which includes strong ball carriers like Frans Viljoen and captain Adriaan Strauss up front as well as skillful backs like Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn and Raymond Rhule who are all capable moments of brilliance on attack.
However, goal-kicking is an area which needs improvement. Young fly-half Johan Goosen has been struggling with this aspect of his game since returning from a knee injury which kept him on the sidelines for four months.
They created several points-scoring opportunities against the Chiefs but poor finishing cost them dearly in the end - an aspect of their game which they cannot afford to repeat against the Highlanders.
Super head-to-head: Highlanders stalwart Hosea Gear's battle with Cheetahs flyer Willie le Roux should be one of the highlights of the game. Gear's power and physicality is always a handful for opposing defences while Le Roux is a deceptive runner who enjoys counter-attacking from deep.
Prediction: This match will be an entertaining spectacle as both teams enjoy running the ball from all areas. The home side's experience, especially in their forwards, should carry them through though. Highlanders to win by 12 points!
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Phil Burleigh, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Jake Paringatai, 7 John Hardie, 6 Joe Wheeler, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Chris King, 18 Jarrad Hoeata, 19 Tim Boys, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Shaun Treeby.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Frans Viljoen, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Rynhard Landman, 19 Heinrich Brüssow, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Riaan Smith, 22 Ryno Benjamin.
Date: Saturday, March 9
Venue: Rugby Park, Invercargill
Kick-off: 19.35 (08.35 SA time; 06.35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)