Preview: Blues v Highlanders

Date published: February 24 2016

The Blues host the Highlanders in their opening clash of the 2016 Super Rugby season at Eden Park in Auckland… and the hosts have a point to prove.

New coach Tana Umaga has been saying all the right things and will be eager to make Eden Park the fortress it once was in Super Rugby's early days. 

The three-time champions have appointed Jerome Kaino to lead a relatively young and inexperienced side who are keen to make up for the 13 losses last year.

Meanwhile, the Highlanders have retained many of the superstars that lead them to maiden Super Rugby title last season. Finishers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osbourne are still well in the mix, as are All Blacks half-back pairing Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith. 

Interestingly, the Blues have never lost consecutive home games to the Highlanders, but if there was ever a time for the visitors to break the habit, it would be now.

A win at Eden Park would be their fifth straight win, their best run since they won six in a row in 2005.

The last time these teams met: Much like their encounter earlier in the year – where the Highlanders scored the opening 24 points – the return fixture was a nightmare for the Blues. Despite a poor season, they were expected to put up a good fight at Eden Park but it was more of the same, with the Highlanders running in six unanswered tries before Blues man Matt McGahan scored a consolation score with 12 minutes to go. The win was the start of the Highlanders four-win streak on the way to the Super Rugby title. 

Players to Watch: For the home side, fly-half Ihaia West will have a heaps of responsibility on his shoulders. The Hawke's Bay product was the Blues' top points scorer in 2015 and much will be expected of him off the kicking tee. The hosts also have two attacking dynamos on the bench in the bustling Rene Ranger and New Zealand Sevens star Akira Ioane, the likes of whom we will surely see in the second half.

The strong Highlanders backline is riddled with stars, the brightest arguably being Waisake Naholo, the leading try scorer of the 2015 competition. All Black scrum-half Aaron Smith will likely continue to be a menace around the fringes and flanker Elliot Dixon should continue his tireless workload. 

Team News: Captain Jerome Kaino is serving a one-match ban for his red card during the warm up match against the Hurricanes. Hooker James Parsons will take over the captaincy while Joe Edwards, who was outstanding in the ITM Cup, will don the number six jersey in Kaino's absence. Japan World Cup star Male Sa’u will start at centre alongside All Black George Moala, who was the ITM Cup player of the year in 2015.

The Highlanders have added some experience to the squad that played against Racing 92. All Black full-back Ben Smith returns, as does Malakai Fekitoa in the outside centre postion. The forwards feature former Chiefs player, Liam Squire, at number eight in his debut Super Rugby match for his new side. Shane Christie will co-captain the team from the openside and young loosehead prop Daniel Lienert-Brown earns a start after some impressive pre-season form.

Form: The Blues took on the Hurricanes in the pre-season and earned an impressive 40-12 win, scoring six tries. While Umaga and his charges welcomed the win, last year's losing finalists would go on to put 74 points on the Crusaders, leaving many scratching their heads about what to take from these warm-up games. The Blues also secured wins over the Rebels and Chiefs.

The Highlanders came out on the wrong end of a pulsating 13-try thriller with Racing 92 in Hong Kong. As predicted, both teams threw caution to the wind with their attacking play. A 19-19 draw with the Crusaders followed before the Highlanders edged the Waratahs in their final warm-up.

Prediction: The odds are certainly stacked against the Blues for the season opener, both on paper and recent history. With a new coach and new attitude they should be competitive, but we expect the defending champions to get off to a winning start. Highlanders by eight. 

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 44-7 in Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 30-24 in Dunedin
2014: Blues won 30-12 in Auckland
2014: Highlanders won 29-21 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 38-28 in Dunedin
2013: Blues won 29-18 in Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 30-27 in Dunedin
2012: Highlanders won 27-20 in Auckland

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi 
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Rene Ranger

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes

Date: Friday, February 26
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)