PREVIEW: Blues v Highlanders

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016    Getty Images

ROUND ONE: Blues v Highlanders, 7.35pm, Friday 26 February, Eden Park

Overall, the Blues and Highlanders have met 26 times in Super Rugby with the Blues winning 15 matches to the Highlanders 11. In recent times the balance favours the Highlanders with six wins out of the last eight matches. Last season the Highlanders won both fixtures between the sides with a combined margin of 74-31 from the two clashes.

After slumping to 14th on the Super Rugby ladder in 2015, the Blues have experienced a pre-season resurgence under new coach Tana Umaga. A dynamic backline and hardworking forward pack has combined to secure impressive wins over the Rebels, Hurricanes and Chiefs. Upfront, former All Blacks Patrick Tuipulotu and Steven Luatua have made the Blues a force while the electric Ioane brothers, former All Black Rene Ranger and speedsters Lolagi Visinia and Melani Nanai have given the Blues game-breaking ability across the park.

The form of the Highlanders has been ominous during their pre-season campaign. After starting with a high scoring 45-38 loss to Dan Carter’s Racing Metro in Hong Kong, the team returned home to grind out a 19-19 all draw with the Crusaders in Waimumu. In their third and final pre-season clash, the Highlanders displayed the form that took them to the Super Rugby title last year by scoring five tries in a thrilling win over a star-studded Waratahs outfit.

There’s no shortage of star power on display with the Highlanders boasting All Blacks Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo among their powerhouse backline. The Blues backline is no less dangerous with first-five Ihaia West set to unleash the dynamic George Moala, Tevita Li and Lolagi Visinia on his outside. If there was one player to watch in this match though it could be Malakai Fekitoa. The Highlanders centre has been unstoppable in pre-season play and starred with three tries against the Waratahs.

It takes just one look at the Blues bench to see the talent they possess this year. In All Blacks prop Charlie Faumuina, sevens superstar Akira Ioane and the returning Rene Ranger, the Blues have vital firepower to call on during this crunch clash. Ranger and Ioane will provide spark while Faumuina will deliver stability up front. If this clash goes down to the wire, the strength of the Blues bench could prove to be the difference.

A season ending injury to Highlanders stalwart Richard Buckman has opened the door for former New Zealand Under-20s rep Teihorangi Walden to debut at second-five. The 22-year-old will be surrounded by plenty of experience with Lima Sopoaga on his inside and Malakai Fekitoa on the outside. As a member of the Highlanders wider training group for the last two years, Walden will be itching to test himself against Blues star George Moala.

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Blues: 15: Lolagi Visinia 14: Melani Nanai 13: Male Sa’u 12: George Moala 11: Tevita Li 10: Ihaia West 9: Bryn Hall 8: Steven Luatua 7: Blake Gibson 6: Joe Edwards 5: Josh Bekhuis 4: Patrick Tuipulotu 3: Sione Mafileo 2: James Parsons 1: Ofa Tu’ungafasi

Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Namatahi Waa, Charlie Faumuina, Akira Ioane, Kara Pryor, Billy Guyton, Matt McGahan, Rene Ranger

Highlanders: 15: Ben Smith (co-captain) 14: Waisake Naholo 13: Malakai Fekitoa 12: Teihorangi Walden 11: Patrick Osborne 10: Lima Sopoaga 9: Aaron Smith 8: Liam Squire 7: Shane Christie (co-captain) 6: Elliot Dixon 5: Joe Wheeler 4: Tom Franklin 3: Josh Hohneck 2: Liam Coltman 1: Daniel Lienert-Brown

Reserves: Ash Dixon, Brendon Edmonds, Ross Geldenhuys, Alex Ainley, Dan Pryor, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Matt Faddes