Preview: Blues v Highlanders

Date published: March 10 2017

Both side’s will be desperate for a win after heart-breaking losses last weekend when the Blues host the Highlanders at Eden Park on Saturday.

The Blues and the Highlanders suffered demoralizing defeats last time out, as the home side suffered a red card at the half-time whistle, which led to them conceding six tries, coming away with no points from their fixture against the Chiefs.

The Highlanders were pipped at the post meanwhile after letting a big lead slip against the Crusaders last weekend.

The Highlanders are in a desperate position at the moment after two losing home games consecutively, which leaves at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference with one point and if they don’t pick up their game, they will be left behind in a Conference full of quality sides.

The Blues are in a slightly better position considering they have a win under their belt. They sit on five points and are fourth on the table, which isn’t ideal considering the form of the Hurricanes and Chiefs but could catch up with a win this weekend.

The Blues won their last game against the Highlanders and will be aiming to win consecutive games against the Dunedin side for the first time since a run of six wins in a row between 2007 and 2011. The Blues have not done well against their countrymen of late though, after losing 16 of their last 17 against New Zealand sides including the last six in a row.

They will take solace in the fact that this will be the Blues’ first home game this season, and they ended 2016 with a run of five wins in their last six games at home, four of those victories coming by eight points or fewer though.

Blues coach Tana Umaga explained he wants All Black centre George Moala to hit the Highlanders up the middle.

“We want them to communicate and be options for our 10’s and be physical,” Umaga told Stuff.

“That’s what he brings; he adds a bit more to that. We’ve been very happy with the way George has come back with his experience with the All Blacks and from his injury.

“The times he’s come off the bench for us he’s been very good so he’s earned his way back in.”

The last time these teams met: The Blues got their Super Rugby campaign off to a fine start when they beat the Highlanders 33-31 in Auckland. Although the Highlanders outscored their hosts four tries to three, with two from Ben Smith, they couldn’t overcome the spirited Blues. It was an incredible spectacle as both teams ran from all over the field. Ihaia West was on song off the tee scoring 18 points through three conversions and four penalties.

Players to watch: The physical presence, skill, and vision of Rene Ranger should never be underestimated and with the human steam-train starting on the wing, he will have a little bit more space to run with than usual. Expect him to cause plenty of problems on Saturday.

Lima Sopoaga is a visionary himself and brings a very different threat to this Highlanders team. The Wellington-born playmaker has a cool head on his shoulders and depending on the tightness of the game, can kick conservatively or spread the ball with no issues. His adept boot is a points machine and the Blues would do well to keep their discipline otherwise Sopoaga will punish them for it.

Team news: The Blues have included a host of All Blacks in their team. The biggest changes is the inclusion of All Blacks George Moala and Ranger. They should add some serious muscle in the Blues back line if called upon, could be battering rams in the midfield.

Highlanders duo Luke Whitelock and Marty Banks return from injury. Liam Squire and James Lentjes, however, are both out injured giving Gareth Evans, who entered the game a few minutes into last week’s clash, a start at in the number six jersey. Elliot Dixon will again captain the side this time from openside flanker and Whitelock will complete the new look back-row at number eight.

Form: It’s been a mixed-bag two rounds for the Blues after defeating the Rebels in an emphatic fashion, winning 56-18 and scoring sevens tries in the process. Before losing 41-26 to the Chiefs at home conceding six tries in the process.

The Highlanders have gotten the competition off to a disappointing start after two home losses to the Chiefs in Round 1 and the Crusaders in Round 2. They lost their first game after conceding three unanswered tries 24-15. And then suffered a demoralising 30-27 loss to the Crusaders after having the game in the bag, leading their Christchurch rivals 17-6 at half-time. They ended up conceding three tries in the final ten minutes to lose.

Prediction: This should be a tough clash between two side’s who will be eager to bounce back from disappointing losses from the week before and catch their New Zealand competitors early in the point table. But the home-ground advantage should see the Blues through. Blues by 5. 

Previous results:

2016: Blues won 33-31 in Auckland
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

The teams:

Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Murphy Taramai, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Akira Ioane/Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Piers Francis, 23 Melani Nanai

Highlanders: 15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Elliot Dixon (c), 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacemets: 16 Sekonia Pole, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Dillon Hunt, 22 Kayne Hammington, 23 Marty Banks

Date: Saturday, March 11
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 GMT (6:35 local)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)