Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: All Blacks' absence will hurt

Hurricanes at GIO Stadium. Photo / Getty Images
Hurricanes at GIO Stadium. Photo / Getty Images

It's too early in the season to talk about must-win games, but the match-up between last year's two finalists in Dunedin tonight is looming as a crucial encounter made tougher for both teams by the withdrawal of their All Black strike weapons.

Hurricanes fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder was yesterday ruled out of the match at Forsyth Barr Stadium with a bruised leg suffered during his team's hammering by the Brumbies in Canberra, with Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo already sidelined with 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.

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 the high expectation levels after their grand final victory last year.

It's one thing to fly under the radar every week, despite having such talented individuals as Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Lima Sopoaga, but quite another when you are expected to win every match.

Both the Highlanders and the Hurricanes looked flat in round one, although that would have been exacerbated by the fact that 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, a statement that could apply equally to the Highlanders. "They'll be going out to put in a performance they're proud of."

- NZ Herald

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