Preview: Blues v Highlanders

Date published: June 11 2015

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The Highlanders must aim to spoil a Blues icon's farewell as they chase a home fixture in the Super Rugby Finals Series.

Friday's clash at Eden Park will mark the end of an era as Super Rugby's most-capped player, All Black veteran Keven Mealamu, dons the blue jersey for the last time.

With the Blues on the verge of recording their worst-ever season, it's been a sombre week for 36-year-old Mealamu, who is mourning the death of close friend and former All Black team-mate Jerry Collins.

Mealamu is also saddened by the absence of long-time front-row colleague Tony Woodcock, who will miss Friday's game because of a shoulder injury, meaning his Super Rugby career is set to end on 149 caps. 

But the Blues can expect no favours from a Highlanders side that will be gunning for a bonus-point win. 

Level on competition points in the overall standings with the Chiefs, who they trail by a single point in the points difference column, the Highlanders will come out all guns blazing.

Jamie Joseph's side were flying high after thrashing the Chiefs a fortnight ago but last week's humbling defeat to the Hurricanes would have served as a wake-up call. 

They have two of their three All Blacks back this week, and their participation seems to the key to the Highlanders' success.

The Blues have won six of their last seven at home to the Highlanders but on current form it's hard to see the hosts coming out on top.

The Blues boast the best tackle success in Super Rugby this season  but, unlike the Highlanders, the Aucklanders have struggled with their execution with ball in hand. These two sides have won fewer penalties than any other teams this season, so it's likely to be a game decided by tries, not the kicking tee. 

The last time these teams met: An impressive first-half performance set the platform for the Highlanders to win 30-24 in Dunedin in Round 10. Three unanswered tries – including a double for Malakai Fekitoa – saw the home side lead 24-0 at the interval. The second half was a very different story though as the Blues raised their intensity to score four tries of their own with Keven Mealamu touching down twice.

Players to watch: A legend in Auckland, Keven Mealamu will captain the Blues in his 175th and final Super Rugby match. He's unlikely to go the distance but he's sure to give it a full tilt for 50 or 60 minutes. His class has never been in doubt but he has certainly slowed down in recent times. He needs to prove that he still has the gas to play World Cup-standard rugby. Ulster-bound Charles Piutau will also play his last game for the Blues. With the Highlanders second row hit hard by injuries, 33-year-old Alex Ainley makes a rare start in his debut Super Rugby season. Just 12 months ago, the former flanker for the Tasman Makos was still playing club rugby but his enthuiasm belies his age. Shaun Treeby will play his 50th game for the Highlanders. 

Team news: In all there are six changes to the Blues starting line-up. Mealamu replaces James Parsons at hooker and Angus Ta'avao takes over from Ofa Tu’ungafasi at tighthead. Hayden Triggs is preferred to Will Lloyd at lock while Chris Vui comes in on the blindside flank for Joe Edwards who shifts to number eight where he takes over from Airi Hunt. Piutau is back at full-back ahead of Matt Vaega while at scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park relegates Jimmy Cowan to the bench.

There are ten positional and personnel changes to the Highlanders team as All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith return, as does in-form winger Patrick Osborne. The front row is completely changed and features Daniel Lienert-Brown in his first run on game for the season, while lock Joe Latta will also have his first game in the starting XV. Elliot Dixon moves to blindside, Dan Pryor returns at number eight. Treeby will partner Richard Buckman in midfield in the absence of Malakai Fekitoa.

Form: The Blues won just three games all year with back-to-back losses in Kiwi derbies in recent weeks. The Blues have lost their last four at home to fellow New Zealand sides, with their most recent two defeats in that run each coming by over 20 points. The Highlanders have won three of their last four games abut are coming off the back of a 56-20 thrashing at the hands of the Hurricanes last week. 

Predictions: As much as the Blues will be keen to give 'Big Kev' a winning send off, form suggests there can be only one result. Highlanders by twelve points

Previous results:
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

The teams:

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Hamish Northcott, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Joe Edwards, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Chris Vui, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Lolagi Visinia.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Richard Buckman, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Latta, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Kurt Baker.

Date: Friday, June 12
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT; 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant referees: Shane McDermott, Angus Mabey
TMO: Ben Skeen

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