Preview of Super Rugby round two matches (all times NZT):
FRIDAY, Feb 22
Highlanders v Chiefs at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin 7.35pm
Head to Head: Played 19 Highlanders 7 Chiefs 12
In Dunedin: Played 6 Highlanders 3 Chiefs 3
Last clash: Round 16 2012 - Chiefs 27 bt Highlanders 21 at Forsyth Barr Stadium
The first all-Kiwi match of the season shapes as a cracker. Both sides have been hit by injury but the emerging Highlanders will still like their chances of taking the big scalp of the defending champions. The Chiefs are missing Richard Kahui, Robbie Robinson and Andrew Horrell from their backline, on top of Sonny Bill Williams' return to the NRL. The Highlanders won't have suspended hooker Andrew Hore, as well as injured playmaker Colin Slade. There was very little between both sides in their two matches last year and both possess strong packs and dynamic backlines. Aaron Cruden's class could be the difference.
Tip: Highlanders by 5 points
Melbourne Rebels v Brumbies at AAMI Park, Melbourne 9.40pm
Head to Head: Played 4 Rebels 1 Brumbies 3
In Melbourne: Played 2 Rebels 1 Brumbies 1
Last clash: Round 15 2012 - Brumbies 27 bt Rebels 19 at AAMI Park
The Rebels chased down a fast-starting Force for a round one win but the Brumbies, who downed the Reds, won't allow them the same luxury. The battle of the breakdown should decide this encounter. The Brumbies back-row, led by Test star David Pocock, dominated Queensland and rookie Rebel flanker Scott Fuglistaller will be up against it. With fullback James O'Connor sharp in his return from injury and Kurtley Beale calling the shots Melbourne have the backline talent to take on the visitors but it will depend on whether they can get any quick ball. The jostling between aspirant Test halfbacks Nick Phipps and Nic White will be key.
Tip: Brumbies by 3 points
SATURDAY, Feb 23
Bulls v Stormers at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria 6.10am
Head to Head: Played 19 Bulls 8 Stormers 10 drawn 1
In Pretoria: Played 9 Bulls 4 Stormers 5
Last clash: Round 15 2012 - Stormers 19 bt Bulls 14 at Loftus Versfeld
The Stormers - South Africa's leading regular-season team over the past two seasons - have brought in exciting Springboks No.10 Elton Jantjies to spark up their attack in 2013. The Cape Town team have built their success on a brick-wall defence but need to unleash the likes of Gio Aplon, Jaco Taute and Bryan Habana. They are missing captain Schalk Burger and lock Eben Etzebeth while the Bulls are near full strength. Always tough to toss at home, the Bulls' strength lies in their big pack. Francois Botha and Morne Steyn remain in the halves and Bjorn Basson looms as a threat out wide.
Tip: Bulls by 3 points
Hurricanes v Blues at Westpac Stadium, Wellington 7.35pm
Head to Head: Played 19 Hurricanes 7 Blues 11 drawn 1
In Wellington: Played 8 Hurricanes 3 Blues 4 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 11 2012 - Hurricanes 35 bt Blues 19 at Westpac Stadium
Sir John Kirwan has a big job on his hands to turn around the Blues but if there trial showings are anything to go by he has plenty of raw talent to work with. The Blues scampered over for 11 tries in matches against the Reds and Waratahs and boast some exciting unheralded youngsters. But it's up to the likes of Piri Weepu, Ali Williams and Luke Braid to lead them with nous. The Hurricanes will miss winger Cory Jane for the season, as well as flanker Ardie Savea for a month, but boast a more settled and experienced side. Young duo Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara were a hit combination in 2012 and should only improve.
Tip: Hurricanes by 6 points
Queensland Reds v NSW Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane 9.40pm
Head to Head: Played 19 Reds 11 Waratahs 8 drawn 1
In Brisbane: Played 10 Reds 6 Waratahs 3 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 18 2012 - Reds 32 bt Waratahs 16 at Suncorp Stadium
The interstate grudge match should tell us plenty about exactly where both arch-rivals sit in 2013. The Reds are already under the pump following their disappointing 24-6 loss to the Brumbies while the Waratahs need to show they are again worthy of the hype. New coach Michael Cheika has brought a steely resolve as well as adventurous intentions. Whether the Waratahs play an expansive game or stick to the strength of their big pack is the $64 question. Queensland will attempt to run them off their feet if they can and hope to counter-attack at will. Many eyes will be on Israel Folau's debut at fullback where he'll be a major threat if the Reds allow him time and space.
Tip: Waratahs by 2 points
SUNDAY, Feb 24
Cheetahs v Sharks at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein 4.05am
Head to Head: Played 10 Cheetahs 4 Sharks 6
In Bloemfontein: Played 5 Cheetahs 2 Sharks 3
Last clash: Round 18 2012 - Sharks 34 bt Cheetahs 15 at ABSA Stadium
Last year's finalists, the Sharks should have little trouble in this away match, even without key forwards Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel. The Sharks boast plenty of depth in their pack and Patrick Lambie is back in his rightful position at five-eighth. The Cheetahs have big-kicking five-eighth Johan Goosen back fit while Waratahs flop Sarel Pretorius returns to Free State on the bench. The competition entertainers have lost captain Juan Smith (retired) and are without ball scavenger Heinrich Brussow (shoulder).
Tip: Sharks by 14 points
Southern Kings v Western Force at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth 6.10am
Head to Head: Played 0 Kings 0 Force 0
The Western Force go where no men have gone before as the first team to take on Super Rugby newcomers the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. The visitors start the bookmakers' heavy favourites but the Kings, who replaced the Lions in the competition, have plenty to play for in their debut. Big-kicking five-eighth Demetri Catrakilis can knock over drop goals from almost anywhere on the park while flanker Luke Watson will lead by example. The Force impressed early on against the Rebels and will see this as a real opportunity for a bonus-point win. Skipper Matt Hodgson, Nick Cummins, Salesi Ma'afu and Hugh McMeniman are all returning from injury. Inside centre Kyle Godwin was one of his team's best against the Rebels and is one to watch.
Tip: Force by 10 points