Preview: Highlanders v Blues

Date published: April 17 2015

Having finally bagged their first win of the season, the Blues will be aiming to double up as they travel to Dunedin to face the Highlanders.

The gap between these sides on the Super Rugby table is by no means an indicator of an easy win for the fifth-placed Highlanders this weekend.

It's a game of incredibly small margins at this level and both these sides could easily have been facing very different scenarios going into this weekend.

Indeed, six of the Highlanders' seven matches this season have been settled by a losing bonus-point margin but Jamie Joseph's side have shown incredible mental fortitude to come out on top on five occasions this year with last week's come-from-behind win over the Crusaders testament to their fighting spirit and enterprising style.

For the Blues, close games have also been an all-to-familiar theme, but they have been on the wrong end of the results, with five losing bonus points highlighting how frustrating the start of their season has been.

Head coach Sir John Kirwan will be hoping a well-deserved win over the Brumbies will bring the confidence his team requires to push on in the second half of the season, because although a play-off berth is a long short, it's not outside the realms of mathematical possibility. A mid-table finish is well within reach.

Confidence is certainly not lacking in the Highlanders camp, especially amongst their back three, who have been tearing fields up. The men from Dunedin have forced the lowest tackling success rate (82 percent) in the competition from their opponents with some fancy footwork and – more importantly – a willingness to have a crack.

While Malakai Fekitoa is very much a marked man now, Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo are enjoying outstanding seasons in partnership with the ever-brilliant Smiths, Ben and Aaron. Fly-half Lima Sopoaga has also upped his game.

Their scrum, by contrast, is cause for concern as their opponents this season have won more scrums at a better success rate (93 percent) than against any other side.

The Highlanders have won their last three at home to the Blues. The last seven clashes between the sides have seen an average of 51 points on the board and no fewer than 42.
The Blues will have plenty of inside knowledge to work with. Jimmy Cowan played more than a 100 games for the Highlanders, and joins Dan Bowden, Josh Bekhuis and Hayden Triggs as former Highlanders in the Blues squad.

With the playoffs clearly in their sights, all the pressure will be on the Highlanders and Joseph won't underestimate Kirwan's team.

"They've always been dangerous, because they've got players who can break open games, it's something they've always had, and always will given the population base coming out of Auckland," said Joseph this week.

"The pressure is now off them and they can go out there and relax. I've been in that position as a coach…a team that has nothing to lose, apart from their reputations, is really quite dangerous.

"We can't focus too much on the Blues, we just have to make sure we put them under pressure when it's time and if they provide us with opportunities we have to take points."

The last time these teams met: The Blues outscored the Highlanders three tries to none to win 30-12 in Auckland in Round 7 last year thanks to a dominant first-half display.

Players to watch: Outstanding teenage prospect Akira Ioane will make his Super Rugby debut for the Blues. Ioane is one of the most exciting young players in the game, having come out of the All Black Sevens team last year and impressing coach Sir Gordon Tietjens. He was given a late contract with the Blues and the 190cm, 110kg loose forward was a standout in pre-season games. For the Highlanders Waisake Naholo has been simply outstanding this season and tops the tournament's try-scoring charts with six to his name this year.

Team news: Front rowers Liam Coltman and Kane Hames as well as lock Mark Reddish have been drafted into the Highlanders pack. Amongst the backs, Jason Emery gets a rare start at inside centre with Shaun Treeby given a rest.
For the Blues, Ioane gets his chance with Luke Braid not considered due to injury and Steven Luatua rested after a heavy schedule. Another young talent, Blake Gibson, joins All Blacks Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina and Jimmy Cowan on a powerful bench.

Form: The Highlanders have won five of their seven games this season and are coming off the back of an impressive 25-20 victory away to the Crusaders. For the Blues, last week's 16-14 home win over the Brumbies ended a seven-game losing streak.

Predictions: The Blues are worth a lot more than their single win this year but it's difficult to argue with the Highlanders' knack of getting positive results out of tight situations. Highlanders by 6!

Previous results:

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:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Richard Buckman

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 George Moala/Francis Saili, 11 Melani Nanai/Tevita Li, 10 Dan Bowden, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jerome Kaino (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock/Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Francis Saili/Hamish Northcott

Date: Saturday, April 18
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off:  19:35 local (17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe, Mike Lash
TMO: Vinny Munro