Preview: Highlanders v Blues

Date published: April 7 2017

The Highlanders will want to build on their winning streak when they host the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.

The home side currently sit at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference with 14 points, just behind their opponents for the weekend who are in fourth place with 15 points.

Historically, the Highlanders are the side to beat in this fixture having won seven of their last 10 games against the Blues, but lost six in a row against them prior to that run.

The Highlanders have won each of their last four home games against the Blues, though they’ve come by an average margin of just seven points.

It could again go down to the wire as four of the last five New Zealand derbies have been decided by a margin of fewer than 10 points.

The Blues have won just one of their last 22 away games within New Zealand; that win came back in Round 2, 2013 against the Hurricanes, which definitely makes them the underdog in the clash.

The Blues do possess some serious attacking threats with players like Rieko Ioane, George Moala and Melani Nanai in their ranks, with Matt Duffie scoring six tries in his last eight games for the Blues, including three in his last two games.

The last time the teams met: The Highlanders secured their first Super Rugby win of the season when they beat the Blues 16-12 in wet conditions in Auckland. As the scoreline suggests, it was a tight tussle with the result in the balance throughout the game although the standard of this fixture was not that of a usual New Zealand derby. The Highlanders eventually outscored their hosts by one try to none. Both sides committed several unforced handling errors in attack and their decision making was not of its normal high quality.

Players to watch: Sonny Bill Williams has been included on the bench for the Blues in what is likely to be his first appearance since rupturing his Achilles tendon at the Rio Olympics. SBW offers huge impact with marvellous offloads making him a serious threat on offence as the creator. His large stature and powerful legs makes him a try threat as well.

The other returnee is Ben Smith for the Highlanders. This try-scoring machine has notched up 31 five-pointers for the Otago outfit in an incredible career. Not only is he good on attack, but he is extremely secure under the high ball and gives wonderful balance to the back three.

Team news: Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has refreshed his forward pack and welcomes back All Black loose forward Liam Squire and captain Ben Smith for their clash with the Blues. Preparing for what will no doubt be a physical encounter Brown has restored Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Alex Ainley and Elliot Dixon to the starting eight. Squire makes his return after four weeks on the sideline and will make an impact from the bench.

The Blues are set to welcome back three key players. The match will feature the long-awaited return of Sonny Bill Williams. All Black Steven Luatua will also return to the side after suspension, which allows coach Tana Umaga to rest Jimmy Tupou who has carried a significant workload in the opening six games. Outstanding young flanker Blake Gibson is also back to full fitness to resume his openside loose forward role, while 21-year-old All Black Rieko Ioane earns a recall to the starting line-up after an outstanding contribution off the bench in the win over the Western Force last weekend.

Form: After three wins from five games the Highlanders will feel as though they are under performing by their usual standards. After a big loss in the third round when they went down to the Hurricanes 41-15, the Highlanders will want to prove themselves against another New Zealand side but will be confident after clobbering the Rebels 51-12.

With a 50 percent win ratio Tana Umaga’s men aren’t exactly hitting their straps. However, after two wins in a row after defeating the Force 24-15 and then scoring five tries to beat the Bulls 38-14, the Auckland side will go into the game with a little more swagger.

Prediction: The Blues have looked red hot when they start swinging the ball but the Highlanders should be able to withstand it and come out on top. Highlanders by 8.

Previous results:

2017: Highlanders won 16-12 in Auckland
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:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes

Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams

Date: Saturday, April 7
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)