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Preview: Highlanders v Force

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016    Superrugby.co.nz    Getty Images

TALE OF THE TAPE
Last year's 23-3 win in Perth was the first time the Highlanders had beaten the Force in seven attempts. The win-loss record is stacked overwhelmingly in the visitors favour, with the Force enjoying a six-win, three-loss record against the southern men.

CONTRASTING ROADTRIPS
The Force will be hoping for some assistance from above if they're to have any chance at containing the Highlanders. The Force have had to make 537 tackles from their five games to date (145 less than the Highlanders), and have missed just four more than their opponents (108 missed tackles vs 112 missed tackles). Those defensive lapses, of course, lead to conceding points. The Western Australian franchise have conceded 94 points in two matches so far on their Kiwi tour, while scoring 16. They've only managed to hold one side to under 20 points so far – 22-6 against the Reds in Round 2 – which culminated in their sole win to date. One positive was the form of Alby Mathewson, who has been rewarded with a start at halfback for Friday's match.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, returned from the West Island with two wins. The first, a patchy 30-26 win over the Waratahs in Sydney, was followed by a more comprehensive 27-3 win over the causeless Rebels in Melbourne. They share third spot on the tryscoring ladder with the Crusaders and Hurricanes with 16, and they've come from all over the park. Last week, the Highlanders made just one linebreak, but were still able to secure a four-try bonus point. The southerners, despite their efforts, remain one point adrift of the Chiefs (19 points) at the top of the New Zealand conference.

ROTATION ROTATION ROTATION

The Highlanders go into the match with another twist in their loose forward rotation policy, illustrating to the rest of the competition the rich depth within their ranks. Despite his high workrate, co-captain Shane Christie will be looking to come off the bench on Friday for the industrious Dan Pryor (with a tackle success rate of over 95 percent this season) or the ever-improving Elliot Dixon, whose workrate has impressed All Blacks coach Steve Hansen so far in 2016. The old adage of competition raising the level of quality is certainly ringing true at Highlanders HQ.

MEAGRE START
The Highlanders have an enviable record when it comes to defensive efforts in the first 40 minutes. In four of the five games, the Highlanders have kept their opponents tryless in the opening half, while their last two matches have seen the Highlanders keep their opponents to zero at half-time (30-0 v Waratahs, 13-0 v Rebels). We have seen sides able to score a number of points against the Highlanders as the second half wears on, but the solid foundation laid in the first period means there's an air of confidence within the Dunedin franchise as the match wears on.

TEAMS
Highlanders: 1. Brendon Edmonds, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Siosiua Halanukonuka, 4. Alex Ainley, 5. Tom Franklin, 6. Elliot Dixon, 7. Dan Pryor, 8. Liam Squire, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Pat Osborne, 12. Rob Thompson, 13. Malakai Fekitoa, 14. Matt Faddes, 15. Ben Smith (co-captain).

Reserves: 16. Ash Dixon, 17. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18. Josh Hohneck, 19. Joe Wheeler, 20. Shane Christie (co-captain), 21. Fumiaki Tanaka, 22. Hayden Parker, 23. Jason Emery.

Force: 1. Pekahou Cowan, 2. Heath Tessmann, 3. Tetera Faulkner, 4. Ross Haylett-Petty, 5. Adam Coleman, 6. Angus Cottrell, 7. Matt Hodgson (captain), 8. Ben McCalman, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Peter Grant, 11. Semisi Masirewa, 12. Solomoni Rasolea, 13. Ben Tapuai, 14. Luke Morahan, 15. Dane Haylett-Petty.

Reserves: 16. Nathan Charles, 17. Chris Heiberg, 18. Jermaine Ainsley, 19. Sitiveni Mafi, 20. Richard Hardwick, 21. Ryan Louwrens, 22. Ian Prior, 23. Albert Nikoro.