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Preview: Highlanders v Blues

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Thursday, February 20, 2014    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

HEAD TO HEAD: Played: 22, Highlanders 8, Blues 14

LAST TIME: Highlanders 38 beat Blues 28, Forsyth Barr Stadium, June 1 2013

WALKING WOUNDED: The Blues are down on locks with Cullum Retallick unable to play all season. Missing this week also are returning All Blacks Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu. First five-eighths Baden Kerr is unable to be considered due to a broken hand while Charles Piutau has been under an injury cloud during the week due to a knee knock last week. It's not so much the injuries the side has suffered as the loss of experience. Gone from last year are: Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Jamie Mackintosh, Andrew Hore andHosea Gear among the frontline players. Buxton Popoali'i is out with injury.

FORM: The Blues have won none of their warm-up games, all of them played without key personnel, and some of that experience will be missing again in Dunedin. The Highlanders did open with a 15-11 win over the Brumbies in Queenstown in their opening game but then lost to the Crusaders 15-28.

WE THINK: Claiming the underdog status is almost as competitive among coaches as they games are for players. John Kirwan claimed the Blues were underdogs but given the respective finishing positions in last year's competition that shouldn't be the case. That said, the Blues are fielding a newer combination. As usual there is a significant battle to be fought up front and here the Blues are down on their full-strength side, but in the loose they should have the difference. However, the fight of the southern men can never be discounted and if they can upset the rhythm of the Queen City side they are well capable of claiming an upset win. But given the experience in key positions the Blues should be able to open their season with a win.

TEAMS:


Highlanders: 1.Kane Hames, 2.Liam Coltman, 3.Chris King, 4.Brad Thorn, 5.Jarrad Hoeata, 6.Gareth Evans, 7.Shane Christie, 8.Nasi Manu (co-captain), 9.Aaron Smith, 10.Lima Sopoaga, 11.Patrick Osborne, 12.Shaun Treeby, 13.Malakai Fekitoa, 14.Richard Buckman, 15.Ben Smith (co-captain).

Reserves: 16.Ged Robinson, 17.Matias Diaz, 18.Craig Millar, 19.Josh Bekhuis, 20.TJ Ioane, 21.Fumiaki Tanaka, 22.Hayden Parker, 23.Phil Burleigh.

Blues:
1.Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2.James Parsons, 3.Charlie Faumuina, 4.Liaki Moli, 5.Tom Donnelly, 6.Steven Luatua, 7.Luke Braid, 8.Peter Saili, 9.Piri Weepu, 10.Chris Noakes, 11.George Moala, 12.Francis Saili, 13.Jackson Willison, 14.Frank Halai, 15.Charles Piutau.

Reserves: 16.Tom McCartney, 17.Sam Prattley, 18.Angus Ta'avao, 19.Patrick Tuipulotu, 20.Brendon O'Connor, 21.Bryn Hall, 22.Benji Marshall, 23.Tevita Li.

?REFEREE: Garratt Williamson