Nehe-Milner-Skudder-100It’s too early in the season to talk about must-win games, but the match-up between last year’s two finalists in Dunedin tomorrow is looming as a crucial encounter made more difficult for both teams following the withdrawal of their All Black strike weapons….reports Patrick McKendry Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Hurricanes fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder was today ruled out of the match at Forsyth Barr Stadium due to a bruised leg suffered during his team’s hammering at the hands of the Brumbies in Canberra, with Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo already sidelined due to a leg fractured during his team’s loss against the Blues at Eden Park.

Both are key attackers, and while coach Chris Boyd will miss Milner-Skudder for probably only one match, Naholo is out for up to eight weeks after fracturing the same leg which left him under-done for the World Cup.

The Hurricanes, thrashed 52-10 by a very good Brumbies side, are likely to find the going extremely difficult against the defending champion Highlanders, who were pipped 33-31 by the Blues in round one, but much will depend on, one, how Jamie Joseph’s men react to their defeat in Auckland, and, two, how they cope with expectation levels which have gone to a new level following their grand final victory last year.

It is a pressure the Crusaders quickly became used to after winning their first title in 1998 – they won two more on the trot for the “three-peat”, and more latterly the Chiefs, who backed up their first title in 2012 by winning it the next year as well. It’s an excercise in the need for constant improvement and self-analysis and some teams are better suited to it than others.

Both the Highlanders and the Hurricanes looked flat in round one, although that would have been exacerbated by the fact both teams were at a disadvantage in terms of possession and territory. Highlanders coach Joseph admitted his side looked more tired than he would have liked and joked he might have to get them running more in training.

Boyd’s men, meanwhile, were accused of being “fat” by commentator Phil Kearns, a former hooker not known for his svelte figure.

Without Milner-Skudder, who scored six tries at the World Cup, and Naholo, who led the way in Super Rugby last year with 13, both teams will have to look elsewhere for the sparks to ignite their season.

“We didn’t start the season how we intended to and I know the boys are hurting,” said Hurricanes coach Boyd during the week in a statement that could apply equally to the Highlanders. “They’ll be going out to put in a performance they’re proud of.”

Ben Smith (c), Matt Faddes, Malakai Fekitoa, Teihorangi Walden, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Shane Christie (c), Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Tom Franklin, Josh Hohneck, LIam Coltman, Brendon Edmonds. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosiua Halanukonuka, Liam Squire, Dan Pryor, Josh Renton, Hayden Parker, Jason Emery.

James Marshall, Cory Jane, Vince Aso, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara (c), Victor Vito, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Mark Abbott, Blade Thomson, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Leni Apisai, Reggie Goodes. Reserves: Ricky Riccitelli, Chris Eves, Loni Uhila, Vaea Fifita, Callum Gibbins, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jason Woodward, Willis Halaholo.

Referee: Glen Jackson

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