PREVIEW: Blues v Highlanders

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Thursday, March 9, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

Restored to something near their best side, the Blues will be looking to build on the 33-31 win they achieved over the Highlanders when they were the defending champions in their opening game of the 2016 season. Both sides need the win, the Highlanders having yet to feature in the winner's column while the Blues, after their opening round rout of the Rebels, need to shake-off the effects of their drubbing by the Chiefs last week.

Pairing George Moala and Rieko Ioane in midfield gives a genuine solidity to the Blues and if provided with sufficient ball they could ignite the potential that has so often lain dormant in the side. With Rene Ranger, Matt Duffie and the increasingly impressive Michael Collins chiming in from the back, the prospect is for the Highlanders defence to be given a thorough work-out.

Highlanders locks Alex Ainley and Tom Franklin are the sort of hardened nuts that every side needs in their position and after the frustrations the Blues suffered at lineout time against the Chiefs, the southern pair will be looking to cause the home team more disruption in this area. But when he came on in Hamilton, Patrick Tuipulotu looked hungry and with flanker Jerome Kaino's presence alongside Jimmy Tupou's contribution, the stage is set for a fascinating contest which could well determine the outcome of the game.

All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith showed signs that he was right back to his impish best against the Crusaders – his blindside set-up for Waisake Naholo's try was a classic – and that spells trouble for any opposition. His combination with first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga is the hinge for the Highlanders and they have the numbers over their rivals. But by the same token Augustine Pulu has demonstrated his intent with the side and if he can find his rhythm with Ihaia West outside there is no reason why a riveting contest should not be on the cards here.

Things can't be too bad when losing an All Black at No.8 you are able to call up another All Black for the same position. But that's the luxury the Highlanders have in Liam Squire's absence. Luke Whitelock's return from injury could not have been better timed while the Blues have taken an interesting step in introducing Murphy Taramai on their side at the expense of Akira Ioane. Interesting ploy by coach Tana Umaga, and yet another area to watch closely.

Blues: 1.Pauliasi Manu, 2.James Parsons (captain), 3.Charlie Faumuina, 4.Jimmy Tupou, 5.Patrick Tuipulotu, 6.Jerome Kaino, 7.Blake Gibson, 8.Murphy Taramai, 9.Augustine Pulu, 10.Ihaia West, 11.Rene Ranger, 12.George Moala, 13.Rieko Ioane, 14.Matt Duffie, 15.Michael Collins.

Substitutes: 16.Matt Moulds 17.Sam Prattley, 18.Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19.Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20.Akira Ioane, 21.Billy Guyton, 22.Piers Francis, 23.Melani Nanai.

Highlanders: 1.Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2.Liam Coltman, 3.Siosuia Halanukonuka, 4.Alex Ainley, 5.Tom Franklin, 6.Gareth Evans, 7.Elliot Dixon (captain), 8.Luke Whitelock, 9.Aaron Smith, 10.Lima Sopoaga, 11.Tevita Li, 12.Rob Thompson, 13.Malakai Fekitoa, 14.Waisake Naholo, 15.Richard Buckman.

Substitutes: 16.Sekonia Pole, 17.Aki Seiuli, 18.Siate Tokolahi, 19.Joe Wheeler, 20.Jackson Hemopo, 21.Dillion Hunt, 22.Kayne Hammington, 23.Marty Banks.