Preview: Highlanders v Hurricanes

Last year's Super Rugby finalists come into Saturday's blockbuster fixture off surprising losses in Round 1.

The Highlanders looked comfortable at Eden Park, showing off the slick handling we remembered from their title year, before the Blues showed unexpected character and snatched the result.

Of greater concern however are the Hurricanes – thrashed by the Brumbies in Canberra in humiliating fashion, conceding an unacceptable seven tries.

Looking short on leadership, following the departures of senior players, and having their tight five bullied up front by an impressive Brumbies group rang a few alarm bells.

If there's a time to be hit for over 50 points then in Round 1 isn't such a bad idea, and we can expect steelier resolve from Chris Boyd's squad on Saturday.

The leadership issue runs a little deeper. Dane Coles injury means he missed out again, with James Broadhurst also absent, which puts the stress on Victor Vito, new skipper TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and even Nehe Milner-Skudder, who is a late withdrawal for Saturday, to step up.

The Highlanders showed enough last week to reassure their supporters the defeat by the Blues was just a blip – more early season rust than anything else.

Also the Highlanders are aiming for a fifth win in seven matches against the Hurricanes, though none of their previous four wins in that run came by more than seven points.

That most recent success of course was the stunning 2015 final when the Highlanders defied the odds in Wellington, and it will be interesting to see if the Hurricanes are still suffering psychologically from that defeat.

The last time these teams met: Last year's final. The first all-Kiwi affair since 2006 saw the Highlanders head into the break up 13-5 thanks to Elliot Dixon's try and two Lima Sopoaga penalties to a try from Ma'a Nonu. Beauden Barrett's three second-half penalties kept the Hurricanes in the hunt but in the end the Highlanders secured their first Super Rugby title thanks to Waisake Naholo's try and a Marty Banks drop goal.

Players to watch: The young new face in the Highlanders backline managed to get a try on his Super Rugby debut last weekend. It'll be interesting to see how Teihorangi Walden goes on his first outing at home for the Highlanders as he fine-tunes his partnership with All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa. He looked sharp at Eden Park.

One week in TJ Perenara already faces a major test of his captaincy with another tough game away from home. The 24-year-old scrum-half has always been a potent threat around the fringes of the ruck and from short distance, and it may take a trademark Perenara try to get the Hurricanes going.

Team news: The Highlanders have made three changes to their starting XV. Brendon Edmonds was the first-choice loosehead last season and returns, Luke Whitelock will make his Highlanders debut starting at eight in his 51st Super Rugby match. Finally, Speedster Matt Faddes will start on the wing in the absence of injured Waisake Naholo.

Meanwhile, Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has named an unchanged starting side. Utility back James Marshall returns to the squad after missing the first round due to the arrival of his first child, replacing Otere Black in the reserves. Nehe Milner-Skudder has been bracketed with Marshall at full-back after falling heavily on his leg during the opening round and will be monitored by the Hurricanes medical staff before a final decision is made on his availability. If Milner-Skudder is ruled out Marshall will start with Jason Woodward coming into the reserves.

Form: A first pre-season fixture for the Highlanders saw them travel to Hong Kong to face Racing 92, losing a high-scoring contest, followed by a draw with the Crusaders and a win over the Waratahs before last weekend's season opener in which they lost to the Blues.

The Hurricanes meanwhile showed that pre-season form means little after they put 70 points on the Crusaders, before going into their first game and shipping 50 points to the Brumbies.

Prediction: Gauging just how much we should take away from the Hurricanes' loss isn't easy, and a response is expected. But the Highlanders looked as strong as ever against the Blues despite the narrow loss and should win at home under the Forsyth Barr roof. 14 of the last 15 meetings between these sides has seen the teams separated by seven points or fewer at the final whistle, so we're going with the Highlanders by seven.

Previous results: 

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
2012: Hurricanes won 26-20 in Dunedin

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds  
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Liam Squire, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery

Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder/James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Mark Abbott, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Leni Apisai, 1 Reggie Goodes 
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 James Marshall/Jason Woodward, 23 Willis Halaholo

Date: Saturday, March 5
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Chris Wratt