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Preview: Hurricanes v Highlanders

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Thursday, June 4, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday 5 June at 7.35pm
McLean Park, Napier

Played: 24, 1996-2015
Hurricanes wins: 13
Highlanders wins: 11

Hurricanes points: 572
Highlanders points: 539

Last played: Hurricanes 20 Highlanders 13, 20.03.15 in Dunedin

Round 17 teams: http://bit.ly/1Joo5Jx

Form: Flagging is a bit of a stretch, but the Hurricanes were made to look very mortal against the Crusaders last weekend, and while their strong position on the table remains intact, it was the first time in 2015 that the ladder leaders looked vulnerable across the board.

It does not erase a beautiful campaign for the men from the capital.

If the Highlanders cannot pick up a competition point from this fixture, the Hurricanes, according to Super Rugby history, will have a 2/3 chance of winning the title.

66% of franchises that have finished number one since 1996 have etched their name on the trophy.

In the meantime, the Highlanders have been in hot form, winning seven of their last nine, and possessing a squad that looks capable of making history for the Deepest of the Southern Super Rugby teams.

Key Players: The hosts welcome back Beauden Barrett in what is a significant boost for the top-of-the-table side and the All Blacks.

While Ma’a Nonu has been rested, the starting XV doesn’t look weakened, Julian Savea, TJ Perenara and Conrad Smith will commence the match giving the top ranked side plenty of power out wide.

Victor Vito will combine with Ardie Savea and James Broadhurst, part of a Hurricanes forward unit that has been able to overcome the bulk of their opponents this year.

The Highlanders are weakened, but despite missing three front line All Blacks the tourists still look strong.

Up front the Landers pack looks as capable as ever, John Hardie and Elliot Dixon continue to spearhead efforts while Ash Dixon takes over the captaincy.

Squad update: Barrett returns to the Hurricanes’ starting team this Friday night in one of three changes to the side which faced the Crusaders.

Coach Chris Boyd has opted to move Blade Thomson into flanker and Victor Vito to No. 8, giving Brad Shields a well-earned breather. Should Shields come off the bench at McLean Park, it will mark his 50th match for the club.

Jeremy Thrush is set to become the most capped Hurricanes' forward on Friday with 107 matches to his name, taking over Andrew Hore's previous record of 106 caps.

In the final change, Rey Lee-Lo comes into the starting line-up.

The visitors feature six changes to the starting line-up that so impressively defeated the Chiefs last Saturday in Invercargill 36-9.

New father Elliot Dixon returns to number eight and Gareth Evans to the blindside. Fumiaki Tanaka, Jason Emery and Marty Banks replace the rested All Blacks in the starting team.

Meanwhile Dixon, Brendon Edmonds, Evans, Richard Buckman and Ryan Tongia should feel right at home at McLean Park as they all play for the ITM Cup team and current Ranfurly Shield holders, Hawkes Bay Magpies.

On the bench Stags halfback, Scott Eade, could be set for his Highlanders debut while Kurt Baker makes his second appearance in the playing 23 for 2015 after coming on against the Reds in ro