The Brumbies head to downtown Invercargill in the deep south of New Zealand tomorrow afternoon to take on the Highlanders in a must-win match.
The visitors are on a four-match losing streak that must be ended this week if they are to have any chance of appearing in the finals. Coach Tony Rea has made some changes to the starting team, in both the forwards and backs, trying to add some much-needed spark to their play.
Salesi Ma’afu takes over from Dan Palmer at tight-head prop while Peter Kimlin comes in at blindside flanker to give the scrum some size and add another jumping option in the lineout. Ma’afu could be playing for his Wallabies future after some sub-par performances in previous outings, and hopefully his disciplinary issues have been addressed — otherwise the Highlanders could easily be progressing their score in threes.
In the backline, the new faces are the ones most fans wanted to see — albeit in unexpected positions. Matt Toomua makes his starting debut at fullback and will join Matt Giteau and Christian Lealiifano in the shared playmaker role — yes, the Brumbies will have three playmakers on the field at once. It’s likely the trio will rotate positions, depending on how the game unfolds.
After announcing his move to the Waratahs for 2012–13 during the week, Adam Ashley-Cooper has been shifted to the wing in place of Francis Fainifo, who’s on the bench. With his decision now made and announced, hopefully Ashley-Cooper has cleared a big weight from his shoulders and can inject himself into the game with positive results.
The Highlanders were perhaps expected to be cellar-dwellers this year, but under new coach Jamie Joseph they’ve shown they can produce some enterprising play (as evidenced by their upset win over the Bulls in Pretoria). They’re sitting mid-table in the New Zealand conference and are coming off the bye, which would have freshened them up after that thrashing at the hands of the rampant Crusaders in their last match.
The starting team has seen a few changes, including fly-half Colin Slade’s return from a broken jaw. Which provides a nice segue to a teammate who likes to use his jaw for other purposes — the ‘mouth from the south’, Jimmy Cowan. Their combination will be crucial for the home team in this match.
Other changes include Kade Poki returning to the wing after recovering from a knee strain, Adam Thomson moving back to his favoured blindside flanker role after a game at openside, and Alando Soakai returning to openside in a pack that appears to enjoy scrumming and will do so until the cows come home.
Exciting youngster Robbie Robinson was not considered for this match after being pepper-sprayed on a big night out in Dunedin and drowning his sorrows a little too deeply after the Crusaders match.
The Highlanders will target this match to push for finals series action. They know that with five of their next six matches in New Zealand, a win here could set them up nicely for the business end of the season.
Key Match-up: Mark Chisholm v. Tom Donnelly – This game will be a huge battle up front and the result could come down to how the line-outs function. Chisholm needs a big match to keep his World Cup ambitions alive so his battle with Donnelly, who is pushing for a starting All Black spot, could have significance beyond the outcome of this match.
Tip: The Brumbies haven’t delivered on their full potential yet and I don’t think that will change for this match. They look to have the advantage in the backs but with wet weather a possibility on game day, it could be a tight forwards’ battle and it looks like the Highlanders have the edge there. Highlanders by 8.
Brumbies: 15. Matt Toomua, 14. Henry Speight, 13. Andrew Smith, 12. Christian Lealiifano, 11. Adam Ashley-Cooper, 10. Matt Giteau, 9. Josh Valentine, 8. Ita Vaea, 7. Julian Salvi, 6. Peter Kimlin, 5. Mark Chisholm, 4. Ben Hand, 3. Salesi Ma’afu, 2. Huia Edmonds, 1. Ben Alexander. Reserves: 16. Anthony Hegarty, 17. Dan Palmer, 18. Colby Faingaa, 19. Michael Hooper, 20. Patrick Phibbs, 21. Tyrone Smith, 22. Francis Fainifo.
Highlanders: 15. Ben Smith, 14. Kade Poki, 13. Kendrick Lynn, 12. Shaun Treeby, 11. Siale Piutau, 10. Colin Slade, 9. Jimmy Cowan, 8. Nasi Manu, 7. Alando Soakai, 6. Adam Thomson, 5. Tom Donnelly, 4. Jarrad Hoeata, 3. Chris King, 2. Jason Rutledge, 1. Jamie Mackintosh. Reserves: 16. Mahonri Schwalger, 17. Halani Aulika, 18. Josh Bekhuis, 19. Nick Crosswell, 20. Aaron Smith, 21. Tony Brown, 22. James Paterson.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Aus)
Assistant referee: Garratt Williamson (NZ), Kane McBride (NZ)
Television match official: Keith Brown (NZ)