Preview: Rebels v Highlanders

The Rebels will be hoping to repeat their 2013 victory over Highlanders when they host the New Zealanders on Saturday in Melbourne.

This fixture is an important one for both sides, as a win for either will see them consolidate their position on their respective conference tables with both teams in second place.

Good news for the Australians is that the Highlanders only loss this season has been away from home – this was however back in Round One.

The Melbourne side have only suffered one loss in the last four rounds – a 45-25 defeat at Loftus to the Bulls, however the visitors did deny the three-time champions a bonus point victory after trailing 42-3 in the 45th minute. Scrum-half Ben Meehan's never-say-die attitude allowed the Australians to restore some pride to the final scoreline and that type spirit can take the side far in the competition.

Victories over the Force and Reds followed by a bonus victory over newcomers the Sunwolves in Tokyo last week has certainly seen the Rebels start the year in a positive way.

The Highlanders meanwhile will want to repeat their 2011 performance where they defeated the Rebels by 40-18 in Melbourne.

The opening round loss to the Blues would have given the Dunedin side a wake-up call as they went onto to secure victories over the Hurricanes, Lions and Waratahs. Despite being up by 23 points in the 56th minute in their match against the Waratahs, the Highlanders held out against a spirited attempt from the Sydney side, ultimately winning 30-26.

Having won their last two fixtures against New Zealand opposition the home side will be hoping they can maintain this form. They have however lost three of the four matches against the Highlanders since their introduction into Super Rugby in 2011. 

The last time the teams met: Both sides found themselves at the bottom half of the overall table at the start of Round Eight in the 2014 season. The Highlanders were the winners in the end, 33-30, despite a resilient come-back attempt from the visitors. This loss to the Australians set in motion a series of eight losses from their remaining ten matches. A converted try from Rebels full-back Jason Woodward in the dying minutes reduced the Highlanders lead to just three points and gave the Melbourne side some form of hope for a debut victory in New Zealand. The Highlanders went for the bonus point fourth try by opting not to take two late penalties which would have put the game beyond the Rebels. 

Players to watch: Captain Sean McMahon has been instrumental week after week for the Melbourne side, effecting steals and making vital tackles at crucial moments. Former Highlander Tamati Ellison will come up against an in-form Highlander midfield combination, but has caught the eye in the last few weeks.

Full-back Ben Smith has been gaining valuable metres, his vision allowing the likes of fellow All Blacks Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa to run at opposition with ease. Liam Squire was a key figure in the victory over the Waratahs last week, getting to the breakdown, allowing and securing quality first phase ball for the threatening Highlanders back-line. 

Team news: Full-back Reece Hodge has overcome injury to be selected the 23-man squad against the defending champions. The 21-year-old proved his fitness on Thursday after being sidelined since suffering a quad injury at training earlier this season. Hodge replaces Sione Tuipulotu on the reserves bench and  Pat Leafa drops to the bench and makes way for James Hanson at hooker. Nic Stirzaker and Scott Fuglistaller have been named on the bench for a second week. The Rebels squad features three former Highlanders with Fuglistaller, Adam Thomson and Tamati Ellison who all played under coach Jamie Joseph during their Super Rugby careers.

Meanwhile there's a debut for Jack Wilson, 26, featured for the Sharks in Super Rugby last year and has played for Otago in the NPC. He replaces Matt Faddes, who has a hamstring strain. Experienced wing Patrick Osborne returns on the left wing in place of Ryan Tongia. Joe Wheeler and Luke Whitelock have both recovered from injuries to be named in the Highlanders' pack, with Whitelock starting on the blindside in place of Elliot Dixon who drops down to the bench. Wheeler starts at lock while there is also a change at hooker where Ash Dixon takes over from Liam Coltman.

Form:  Both the Rebels and Highlanders have lost only one match in their last four games. The Australians lost to the Bulls in Round Two. They have however secured wins over fellow Australians the Force and Reds in Round One and Three respectively. The Melbourne side secured an important bonus point victory over newcomers the Sunwolves last week in Tokyo.

The champions meanwhile lost their opening round match to the Blues in Auckland. A 33-31 victory for incoming coach Tana Umaga and his men was a surprise. The Dunedin side went on to secure two home victories – over the Hurricanes and Lions – and an important 30-26 win over the 2014 champions in Australia.

Prediction: The Highlanders are known for making their opponents pay for their mistakes, even with their clinical attacking prowess, the Rebels will not be able to keep the New Zealanders out. Highlanders to win by 14.

Previous results: 

2014: Highlanders won 30-33 in Dunedin
2013: Rebels won 38-37 in Melbourne
2012: Highlanders won 12-43 in Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 18-40 in Melbourne

The teams:

Rebels: 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timpani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Reece Hodge

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery

Date: Saturday, March 26
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner, Jordan Way
TMO: Peter Marshall