|Brumbies v Highlanders: Friday 6.05pm (AEST)
at GIO Stadium, Canberra
|Best Bet: Highlanders -4.5 ($1.90)
Value Bet: Highlanders 11-15 ($7.50)
Australia’s lone Super Rugby title hope has a difficult task remaining alive in the finals when they host the in-form, defending champion Highlanders on Friday night.
The Brumbies’ chances have received a massive shot in the arm via the return of brilliant No.7 David Pocock. Meanwhile, Blake Enever comes in for injured lock Rory Arnold and Robbie Coleman returns on the wing at the expense of James Dargaville.
The Highlanders have made two changes, with Liam Squire moving into the starting pack at No.8; that sees Luke Whitelock switch to lock and Alex Ainley drop out of the 23. Co-captain Shane Christie returns from injury on the openside for James Lentjies.
The Brumbies have won 12 and the Highlanders eight of 20 previous encounters. The Brumbies hold a 9-2 home advantage, including a 35-18 victory in Canberra last year. The Highlanders prevailed 23-10 in Invercargill in Round 10.
The Brumbies have been underwhelming since the Test rugby break, with a 40-15 thrashing at the hands of the Blues in Auckland sandwiched between relatively comfortable home wins over the lowly Reds and Force. Top of the Australian Conference with a 10-5 record, the Brumbies are ranked sixth in attack and seventh in defence.
The Highlanders finished with an 11-4 record – just one bonus point shy of the table-topping Hurricanes – thanks to convincing away wins over the Kings and Jaguares, and a hard-fought 25-15 win at home against fellow contenders the Chiefs in the last three rounds. The Highlanders’ defence is the second-best in the competition, while they are ranked seventh in attack.
David Pocock has to be the Brumbies’ driving force in his first game since the opening Australia-England Test, while opposing No.7 Shane Christie will also be short of a gallop after missing a few weeks with injury.
Stats That Matter
The Brumbies are 8-7 against the start in 2016, while the Highlanders are 10-5 ATS this year. The Brumbies are 11-5 at home since the start of 2015 (7-9 ATS). The Highlanders are 14-4 away since the start of last season (9-9 ATS). The Brumbies have won seven of the last nine clashes between the franchises. Home sides are 76-56-3 this season (69-66 against the start). Home underdogs are 8-27-3 overall and 24-28 ATS in 2016.
The home-field advantage and Pocock’s return are the biggest causes for optimism from the Brumbies’ perspective – but they are up against it with the Highlanders in red-hot form. No team in the competition is better in high-pressure contests than the defending champs, while their forward pack is relentless and their backline laced with big names, composure and firepower. There’s plenty of experience and class in the Brumbies’ pack and inside-back contingent, but it’s difficult to see them rattling up many points against the Highlanders’ stout defence. Count on the Highlanders advancing courtesy of a late flurry following a close-fought first half.
The Way It’s Shaping
Highlanders by 13
Highlanders -4.5 ($1.90)
Highlanders 11-15 ($7.50)