Planet Rugby

Preview: Blues v Highlanders

27th March 2014 14:01

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New Zealand's 'Messi': Ben Smith

Keeping the heat on the Chiefs at the top of the New Zealand Conference, the Blues and the Highlanders face each other on Saturday.

Sir John Kirwan's side have played an extra game than their visitors to Eden Park, winning only two of their five matches but bagging enough bonus points to put themselves in the top half of the table.

Last week's win over the Cheetahs was seriously entertaining, a 70-pointer that underlined the Blues' intent to run the ball from anywhere.

If you leak plenty of points but score more than your opponent, then there's no problem, but against more effective teams than the Cheetahs a sturdier defensive effort from the Blues will be required.

After all the Blues have conceded 160 points already this season, the second-highest number in the tournament apart from the Cheetahs at an average of 32 a game.

Plenty of attention is put on the effectiveness of the Blues' backline, and rightly so when you have the likes of George Moala, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau to unleash.

But the work of their back-row caught the eye against the Cheetahs. Steven Luatua is backing up his breakthrough year in 2013 with a powerful running game, making him difficult to stop at close range.

Combining that with the work ethic of Luke Braid, who was everywhere at Eden Park, gives you two key players.

Kirwan has the luxury of bringing in Jerome Kaino and the former All Black needs no introduction, but his lineout work is a boost. That's a very talented back-row at the Blues disposal and they'll need them working at their hardest to combat the Highlanders' industrious trio of Elliot Dixon, Shane Christie and Nasi Manu.

More attention for the hosts has to be given to Simon Hickey. Keeping Benji Marshall on the bench, the 20-year-old has risen to the occasion and been partnered well up until this stage by Piri Weepu - the World Cup-winner guiding the youngster.

The Blues camp will no doubt have been shaken this week by the news that Weepu suffered a stroke, even if it was minor.

Not that inspiration was in short supply, but it will give the squad that extra impetus.

The Highlanders though are no joke. Since blowing the Blues away in their season opener, all three of their matches have gone down to the wire; pipped by the Force and Chiefs before holding on last weekend against the Hurricanes.

The clearout of a number of All Blacks is actually working. Colin Slade's departure has given Liam Sopoaga no excuses and he responded with an excellent goal-kicking performance against the 'Canes as the Highlanders bossed the breakdown.

You can't discount the threat of their wide players either. 21-year-old Malakai Fekitoa was relatively unknown outside of playing in the ITM Cup for Auckland and making no appearances for the Blues last season, but he certainly reminded them what they'd passed up on with his try back in Round One. That score and his monster hit on Conrad Smith mean that everyone knows who Fekitoa is now.

Ben Smith has been supreme as ever, floating around like a rugby equivalent of Lionel Messi in a free-range tactic to try and lure in opposition defences, which he does well.

Neither side's set-piece is perfect, operating at the lineout with 78.6 and 77.5 percent respectively.

The Blues scrum though is the least successful at 67 percent and you sense that the Highlanders with their 88 percent success rate will captialise in that area. Perhaps that's why Kirwan spoke out this week about a pressing need for changes to the scrum laws.

Prediction: When the Highlanders have won this season they have started fast and given their opponents too big a mountain to climb. So, to win at Eden Park, an early try plus scrum dominance and Sopoaga's boot should do the job - before the Blues, the tournament's top try scorers, fight back. Highlanders by five.

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Tom Donnelly, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Pita Ahki, 23 Benji Marshall

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.

Date: Saturday, February 29
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kickoff: 19:35 (local, 06:35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

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