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Super Rugby 2017: Highlanders v Rebels Preview
We preview Friday’s solitary Round 6 Super Rugby fixture which sees the Highlanders and Rebels lock horns at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The Highlanders will be looking to build on from their come-from-behind victory over the Brumbies when they host a winless Rebels side this Friday. The visitors have had a horrid start to the season and currently sit at the foot of the Australasian Conference. As such, they come into this one as rank underdogs with the bookmakers offering a +25.5 handicap.
Can the 2015 champions continue on an upward trend or will the Rebels arrest their horrendous run of form?
Highlanders v Rebels | Friday 31 March | Forsyth Barr Stadium | 08:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Highlanders 1/100 | Draw 33/1 | Rebels 10/1
Highlanders (-25.5) 9/10 | Rebels (+25.5) 9/10
The Highlanders picked up arguably their most important victory since the 2015 Final when they beat the Brumbies last week. Tony Brown’s side had lost two games on the bounce and had they gone down to the Brumbies, they would have been 16 points off New Zealand Conference leaders, the Crusaders.
Look, there have been mitigating circumstances to the Highlanders slow start to the season – their first four games were against domestic rivals and they have been hard hit by injuries to key players – but one would have expected more from a side that contains both Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa. The biggest problem for the ’Landers this term has been their inability to finish off gilt-edged chances, with knock-ons and ill-discipline costing them dearly.
Some of the aforementioned gremlins seemed to disappear against the Brumbies last week, which is great news for fans of the Dunedin-based franchise.
In terms of team news, Tony Brown has switched things up at fly-half with Marty Banks coming in for young gun Fletcher Smith. The only further change to the Highlanders' back division sees Tevita Li return to the right wing in place of Sio Tomkinson. There are more changes in the pack, however, with Aki Seiuli coming in at loosehead in place of Daniel Lienert-Brown while Joe Wheeler comes into the second row and Gareth Evans takes Elliot Dixon's place in the loose trio.
It’s going to be a long year for the Rebels. And while there were encouraging signs to their first half performance against the Waratahs last week, the defensive frailties that have seen them already conceded 186 points at an average of 46.5 points per game were on display for all the world to bear witness to during the second half of said fixture.
So how do the rebels turn things around? I actually answered this question before their Round 4 bye, by stating that they need to shore up their defence. This has failed to materialise, however, and I don’t envisage it changing anytime soon.
Rebels coach, Tony McGahan, has been forced to make one change to his starting XV with veteran Mitch Inman coming into the outside centre berth and Tom English shifting out to the wing to cover for the injured Safa Naivalu.
Verdict: Highlanders (-25.5) 9/10
It’s another big cap but I’m not too perturbed as I can see a Highlanders late show taking them past the - 25.5 mark.