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Preview: Highlanders v Blues

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Friday, April 29, 2011    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Carisbrook, Dunedin, Friday April 29 @ 1935 HEAD TO HEAD: Played 16: Highlanders 5 wins, Blues 11. LAST TIME: February 19, 2010 (Dunedin) – Highlanders 15-19 Blues. WALKING WOUNDED: The Highlanders have a number of their top-liners restored to full fitness this week, so five changes have been made from the side that downed the Crusaders. Adam Thomson, Alando Soakai, Jimmy Cowan and Kade Poki have all recovered from various ailments and take their places in the run-on XV, with three of the replaced players on the bench this time, while Jason Rutledge has been restored at hooker. Blues prop Tony Woodcock has joined the growing number of senior players on sidelines around the country at present, with a foot sprain suffered last week keeping him out of at least this match; Tevita Mailau replaces him in the front row. Luke McAlister replaces Benson Stanley in a straight swap at 12. FORM: Highlanders: Round 6: Bye Round 7: Beat Brumbies 26-20 (h) Round 8: Beat Cheetahs 24-21 (h) Round 9: Beat Rebels 40-18 (a) Round 10: Beat Crusaders 26-18 (a) Blues: Round 6: Beat Chiefs 16-13 (a) Round 7: Beat Cheetahs 29-22 (h) Round 8: Bye Round 9: Beat Waratahs 31-17 (h) Round 10: Beat Rebels 40-23 (h) With no losses for either team in a month, this has to be the match of the round. The Highlanders surprised many when, despite the absence of six top-liners, they were good enough to take the Crusaders at Nelson and not allow the hosts even a consolation point. Jamie Joseph has the team ticking over nicely and whole is considerably greater than the sum of the parts. The Highlanders have already enjoyed more wins in any season since 2002 (the last time they made the playoffs) and on present form there are a few more to come. When the Blues were good against the Rebels they were almost irresistable, creating some outstanding tries, but there were long periods when little worked and the Rebels thought they had a shout. A killing burst in the last few minutes inflated the score but it was hardly a true reflection of play. That said, the Blues are winning a lot of games and there is a steel about the side that has been lacking in several recent seasons. There are plenty of backline threats but a few worrying injuries in the pack, who probably need to turn in their best performance of the season this week against an aggressive, gritty and skilled home eight. WHO'S HOT: Plenty of players in both sides are travelling very nicely at present and, if the Wise Men weren't casting a few looks down south earlier in the year they might be now. Jarrad Hoeata's star was on the rise last year and he was spoken of as a potential left-field choice for the end of year tour, but any elevation this year would hardly raise an eyebrow as his physical, strong brand of no-nonsense play is one of the team features. Ben Smith's star may have waned in 2010 but this season he's back in the sort of form that won him a place in the 2009 tourists, and is playing well in a variety of positions. Kendrick Lynn, who has normally been regarded as a provincial trooper, has settled well into the higher level this year and his unfussy contribution is another key to the Highlanders resurgence. The Blues will be pleased that Ali Williams came through an hour last week without mishap and that he was quickly restored as the go-to man in the lineout, as his presence in the engine room adds strength to the tight five. Luke Braid, having an extended run in the starting team, is another player to have made a big advance this year and definitely looks at home in the higher grade. Stephen Brett is playing well at present, even if his goal-kicking was rough last week, and retaining him at first-five keeps a dangerous attacking inside back trio together, in the positions where each seems the most comfortable. WE THINK: This should be a cracking game and one hopes it won't be spoiled by the unsettled weather. Picking a winner is hard, but we suspect the highlanders, with their gutsy one-in, all-in style might find a way to overcame the northerners and record a rare win in Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy matches. We'll have the Highlanders by five points, and both eyes on the TV on Friday night. TEAMS: Highlanders: 1. Jamie Mackintosh (capt), 2. Jason Rutledge, 3. Chris King, 4. Jarrad Hoeata, 5. Josh Bekhuis, 6. Adam Thomson, 7. Alando Soakai, 8. Nasi Manu, 9. Jimmy Cowan, 10. Tony Brown, 11. Siale Piutau, 12. Ben Smith, 13. Kendrick Lynn, 14. Kade Poki, 15. Robbie Robinson. Replacements: 16. Mahonri Schwalger, 17. David Te Moana, 18. Tom Donnelly, 19. Nick Crosswell, 20. Aaron Smith, 21. Matt Saunders, 22. James Paterson. Blues: 1. Tevita Mailau, 2. Keven Mealamu (capt), 3. John Afoa, 4. Anthony Boric, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Jerome Kaino, 7. Luke Braid, 8. Peter Saili, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Stephen Brett, 11. Rene Ranger, 12. Luke McAlister, 13. Jared Payne, 14. Joe Rokocoko, 15. Isaia Toeava. Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Pauliasi Manu, 18. James King, 19. Chris Lowrey, 20. Toby Morland, 21. Benson Stanley, 22. Lachie Munro. REFEREE: Chris Pollock