Planet Rugby

Preview: Blues v Highlanders

27th March 2014 14:01

Share:

ben smith highlanders blues

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)

Forthcoming Fixtures
FixtureDetails
All times are local
Aviva Premiership
Friday , October 3
Bath vs Saracens19:45
Saturday , October 4
London Irish vs Northampton15:00
Harlequins vs London Welsh15:00
Gloucester vs Leicester15:15
Sunday , October 5
Sale vs Wasps14:00
Newcastle vs Exeter15:00
More Aviva Premiership fixtures
Rugby Championship
Saturday , October 4
South Africa vs New Zealand16:05
Argentina vs Australia23:40
More Rugby Championship fixtures
Guinness PRO12
Friday , October 3
Connacht vs Cardiff Blues19:35
Ulster vs Edinburgh19:35
Zebre vs Ospreys19:35
Saturday , October 4
Leinster vs Munster18:30
Sunday , October 5
Benetton Treviso vs Glasgow14:00
Scarlets vs Newport Gwent D'gons16:00
More Guinness PRO12 fixtures
Top 14
Friday , October 3
Oyonnax vs Toulon20:45
Saturday , October 4
Bordeaux-Begles vs Clermont Auvergne14:45
Racing Metro Paris vs Brive18:30
Bayonne vs Montpellier18:30
La Rochelle vs Lyon18:30
Castres vs Grenoble18:30
Toulouse vs Stade Francais20:45
More Top 14 fixtures
Currie Cup
Friday , October 3
Pumas vs Blue Bulls15:00
Sharks vs Lions19:10
Saturday , October 4
Cheetahs vs Western Province14:00
Griquas vs Eastern Province Kings15:00
More Currie Cup fixtures
Recent Results
FixtureDetails
All times are local
Aviva Premiership
Sunday , September 28
Wasps 35 - 18 NewcastleWasps vs Newcastle Report
Exeter 36 - 13 HarlequinsExeter vs Harlequins Report
More Aviva Premiership results
Guinness PRO12
Newport Gwent D'gons 33 - 15 Benetton TrevisoNewport Gwent D
More Guinness PRO12 results
ITM Cup
Tasman 32 - 24 OtagoTasman vs Otago Report
Canterbury 26 - 28 SouthlandCanterbury vs Southland Report
More ITM Cup results
Aviva Premiership
Saturday , September 27
Leicester 19 - 22 London IrishLeicester vs London Irish Report
Saracens 40 - 19 Sale SharksSaracens vs Sale Sharks Report
Northampton 31 - 24 BathNorthampton vs Bath Report
More Aviva Premiership results
Rugby Championship
South Africa 28 - 10 AustraliaSouth Africa vs Australia Report
Argentina 13 - 34 New ZealandArgentina vs New Zealand Report
More Rugby Championship results
Guinness PRO12
Zebre 13 - 6 UlsterZebre vs Ulster Report
Munster 14 - 19 OspreysMunster vs Ospreys Report
More Guinness PRO12 results
Top 14
Toulon 40 - 17 MontpellierToulon vs Montpellier Report
Grenoble 27 - 25 Racing Metro ParisGrenoble vs Racing Metro Paris Report
Brive 34 - 24 Bordeaux-Begles
Oyonnax 8 - 19 Clermont Auvergne
Stade Francais 43 - 10 La Rochelle
Lyon 28 - 18 Castres
More Top 14 results
Currie Cup
Sharks 53 - 24 Eastern Province KingsSharks vs Eastern Province Kings Report
Griquas 8 - 46 LionsGriquas vs Lions Report
More Currie Cup results
ITM Cup
Waikato 20 - 22 ManawatuWaikato vs Manawatu Report
North Harbour 28 - 25 Hawkes Bay
Counties Manukau 55 - 7 WellingtonCounties Manukau vs Wellington Report
More ITM Cup results
Aviva Premiership
Friday , September 26
London Welsh 10 - 46 GloucesterLondon Welsh vs Gloucester Report
More Aviva Premiership results
Guinness PRO12
Leinster 37 - 23 Cardiff BluesLeinster vs Cardiff Blues Report
More Guinness PRO12 results
Aviva Premiership Table
PosTeamPPts
1Saracens418
2Northampton416
3Bath415
4Exeter414
5Wasps411