WELLINGTON - Coach Jamie Joseph is desperate for the Highlanders to overcome their Super Rugby Australian hoodoo when they play the Rebels.
They have lost six consecutive matches to their trans-Tasman rivals, most by agonisingly close margins, including a 38-37 defeat by the Rebels in Melbourne last year.
Joseph struggled to single out reasons but knows they must turn the trend around if they are to be a force in this year's competition.
"This is by far the toughest competition in my tenure as coach," he said.
"Australian teams across the board are a lot stronger, and I can only see them getting tougher as the years ago by."
Former influential Highlanders midfielder Tamati Ellison lines up for the Rebels, and Joseph acknowledges the potential threat he poses.
"Quality player, quality person," he said.
"I'm sure he'll add a lot to the Rebels, as he already has. I still think of him as a Highlander."
Prop Kane Hames is serving a one-game suspension — one of six players who started against the Blues to miss the match.
He is replaced by Ma'afu Fia in the front row with hooker Liam Coltman also restored to the starting line-up.
Veteran lock Brad Thorn is replaced by Joe Wheeler while blindside flanker Gareth Evans bumps Elliot Dixon to the bench.
Midfielder Phil Burleigh is out with a recurring shoulder injury, while wing Patrick Osborne misses with an ankle injury.
Shaun Treeby replaces Burleigh, while Kurt Baker comes in for Osborne.
Co-captain and No.8 Nasi Manu said the Highlanders had to arrest their habit of not playing out the full 80 minutes.
"We haven't nailed an 80-minute performance yet," he said.
"I think it's probably more of a mindset. There are few factors. You could possibly put it down to self-belief and fatigue."
He said the Rebels' 32-24 win over the Brumbies last week showed the risks of taking them lightly.
"They're a dangerous side, unpredictable, and they've tipped over some big teams."
Manu says the Highlanders have the ability to make the post-season despite losing three of their opening five matches.
Highlanders: Ben Smith, Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Kurt Baker, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, Shane Christie, Gareth Evans, Jarrad Hoeata, Joe Wheeler, Ma'afu Fia, Liam Coltman, Chris King.
Reserves: Ged Robinson, Craig Millar, Matias Diaz, Josh Bekhuis, Elliot Dixon, Fumiaki Tanaka, Trent Renata, Hayden Parker.