Preview: Hurricanes v Highlanders

The Hurricanes will be out for revenge when they host the Highlanders in a repeat of last year's final in Wellington on Friday.

The Highlanders beat their neigbours in last year's tournament's showpiece event of course, but the Hurricanes will have extra motivation as they also lost the corresponding fixture to the champions in Dunedin in Round Two earlier this year.

That match was typical of clashes between these sides with neither team giving the other an inch and it was an entertaining affair with plenty of drama throughout and the Highlanders eventually claimed a narrow one-point win.

Don't expect this encounter to be any different. Both sides are chasing a play-off place and only a point separates them in the standings after 11 matches.

Something's got to give and the side which finishes on the losing side know that the result could have dire consequences later on in the competition.

New Zealand sides have, once again, set the benchmark for enterprising play and although these teams have – unlike last season when they were the pacesetters – lagged behind the Chiefs and Crusaders this year, they are still amongst the tournament's best attacking teams.

The Hurricanes have made the third most clean breaks (140) while the Highlanders are seventh (117). The men from Wellington are also the side that have gained the most metres (5797) while the champions are, surprisingly, in eleventh place with (4614).

The Highlanders, however, have the competition's best scrum, with a 97 percent success rate while the Hurricanes are third with an impressive 95 percent effort atthe set-piece.

The last time these teams met: The Highlanders claimed a narrow 17-16 victory when these sides met in Dunedin in Round Two. The Highlanders dominated the early exchanges and were on course for victory but the Hurricanes showed great tenacity to fight back in the second half. Malakai Fekitoa scored the Highlanders' only try in the first half and Lima Sopoaga slotted two penalties. Beauden Barrett also kicked two penalties for the visitors which meant the Hurricanes led 11-6 at half-time. Barrett added another three-pointer from the kicking tee in the second half and also converted a TJ Perenara try. However, further penalties from Sopoaga and Hayden Parker was enough to secure the Highlanders' win.

Players to watch: The Hurricanes will be boosted by the return of the two Saveas, Cory Jane and Victor Vito after they missed the side's win over the Reds due to disciplinary reasons. All Blacks flyer Julian Savea has been blowing hot and cold this season but he's proven in the past – for club and country – that he's a player for the big occasion. After he's enforced absence in their previous match, he'll be champing at the bit to do well in this fixture.

The Highlanders have unearthed a brilliant attacker in midfielder Matt Faddes, who has gone from strength to strength as the season progressed. The former All Blacks Sevens representative, who made his Super Rugby debut this year, was brilliant with ball in hand in the champions' previous match, against the Crusaders, scoring a brace of tries. If he finds the ball in space, expect him to wreak havoc.

Team news: Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has made four changes to his starting line-up which faced the Reds two weeks ago. Captain Dane Coles and lock Michael Fatialofa both successfully completed concussion protocols this week and return to the starting line-up. The five players who were stood down for the Hurricanes last match against the Reds for missing a team curfew in South Africa return to the fold with loose forwards Victor Vito and Ardie Savea, as well as wings Julian Savea and Cory Jane back in the starting XV, and prop Chris Eves among the replacements.

Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph has made two changes from his run-on side that beat the Crusaders in Round 12. Both alterations are in the front row, with Tom Franklin coming in for Joe Wheeler and Daniel Lienert-Brown, who was a late withdrawal for the Crusaders match, will start at loosehead prop in place of Josh Hohneck, who packs down on the other side of the scrum in place of Siua Halanukonuka.

Form: The Hurricanes had a bye last weekend but they registered a 29-14 victory over the Reds in their previous match two weeks ago. That was a crucial result as it followed their 32-15 defeat against the Sharks in Durban. Prior to that they kicked of their tour to South Africa with an impressive 50-18 victory over the Lions in Johannesburg.

The Highlanders also return to action after having a bye in Round 13 but they head into this clash full of confidence after a superb showing in their 34-26 triumph over the Crusaders in their previous match. That result ended the seven-time champions' eight-match winning run and was preceded  with impressive victories over the Chiefs and Brumbies in Round 10 and 11.

Prediction: This should be another humdinger and is really difficult to call! Homeground advantage will be crucial so we'll go with the Hurricanes to win by three points!

Previous results: 

2016: Highlanders won 17-16 in Dunedin
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

The teams:

Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reggie Goodes
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, Jamison 21 Gibson-Park, 22 Ngani Laumape, 23 Jason Woodward

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden

Date: Friday, May 27
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Jamie Nutbrown
TMO: Aaron Peterson