The Force will be hoping to scuttle the Highlanders’ finals hopes when the two teams come to a head this Saturday night in Perth.
The Force come off a bye, following a rare win in their season against the Waratahs in round 13. Finishing the season off with some wins – and in turn avoiding the wooden spoon which they currently hold – will be the team’s objective.
Contrastingly, the Highlanders have all to play for after a mixed tour of South Africa: which consisted of a close loss against the Lions, and a convincing win against the Cheetahs. In fifth place, the men from Dunedin are fighting to keep in touch in the competitive New Zealand conference, and qualify for playoffs.
Head to head, the Force are 6-0 against the Highlanders since 2008. The last time they met, the Force prevailed by two points (29-31) away from home.
The Force has rung in the changes for this week’s fixture. Coach Michael Foley has reshuffled the midfield: with Godwin shifting to inside centre, and Brache catapulted in to the outside centre berth from the bench. Substitution-wise, Wykes is the lock cover instead of Steenkamp, and potential debutant (and local product) Lacey is the outside back cover.
The Highlanders has similarly opted to adjust their 23 that played so well last week. The changes are in the backline: the form winger in the comp, Naholo, is out, and occupying his place is Tongia; while Treeby slots back in at inside centre, ousting Buckman from the XV.
The Key Players
The Highlanders halves will be no doubt influential in the team’s success on the night. The incumbent All Blacks scrumhalf, Aaron Smith, has been on fire in the last few games; with three tries in the last two games to his name alone. Partnering him is Lima Sopoaga, who has become more consistent within the last two seasons – evident in his place-kicking and composure. Due to the logjam at flyhalf for the All Blacks, he is bewilderingly fifth in line.
It is no surprise that the Highlanders’ upward trajectory in the competition coincides with stability in their first-choice 9 and 10. Contrast this with the Force, who are bottom of log, and incidentally, have chopped and changed their halves all season. If the forwards lay the platform, the Force better watch out for Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga leading the attack on the front foot.
Arguably the premier halfback in the world
For the Force, Matt Hodgson’s presence in the team is undeniable. Like Manu is for the Highlanders, Hodgo is the heart and soul of the team, and will be grabbing his team-mates by the scruff of their necks. The forwards collectively will be intent on outworking the men from Dunedin in attack and defence; especially disrupting any clean, quick ball Aaron Smith can provide for his much vaunted backline – which is Hodgo’s specialty.
The Skipper getting stuck in
Presumably this game seems like a foregone conclusion based on how the Force have travelled this year (the Tahs games excepted), and the form the Highlanders are in. The question that will be on everyone’s minds is ‘can the Force bring that same sort of intensity to this match as they did in the Waratahs match?’ For mine, the Highlanders will not take this match lightly – as they have lost the last few games against the Force, and they are aware that many a teams have been ambushed in Perth.
If their pack gains any sort of ascendancy (or parity), the firepower they possess in the backs will be too much for the home team. As much as it pains me to say it, the Force would be wise to employ more contestable kicks and force them into making mistakes – if the Highlanders’ fixture last week against the Cheetahs, where they pounced on the opposition’s mistakes with ruthless efficiency, was anything to go by. Otherwise they will be punished.
Highlanders by 3.
Force v Highlanders
|nib Stadium, Perth
|Sat 23 May 21:45
|Assistant Ref 1:
|Assistant Ref 2: