PREVIEW: Highlanders v Blues

Getty Images

Thursday, April 6, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

The Highlanders will be hoping that the momentum they have gained in the last few weeks will be sufficient to hold off the desperate Blues, who like the Highlanders have won their last two games, but without the superior clarity the home team has achieved. When they have strung together consistent plays, the Blues have looked impressive but lack of care for possession has undone them several times. The Highlanders have always had an appetite for the crumbs they can secure and that appreciation is a valuable ally.

Considerable attention will be paid to faces returning, all of them All Blacks, to the fray this weekend. Highlanders fullback Ben Smith had to pull out just before last weekend's game, but No.8 Liam Squire has been out for a month and his return, from the bench, will be welcomed for the drive it brings to the effort. Similarly, the arrival of Sonny Bill Williams, making his first appearance for his new franchise, will be scrutinised to see if the old magic is still there in the time he is able to have on the field. And No.8 Steven Luatua is back from suspension to see the Blues loose forward unit restored to full strength with Jerome Kaino back on the blindside flank and Blake Gibson returning to the openside.

Blues coach Tana Umaga has taken a gamble with his lineout. All Black Patrick Tuipulotu had the mortification of a dropped ball, a Blues disease this season, when he had the winning of the last encounter against the Highlanders in Auckland and has been rotated for this game with the more junior combination of Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Scott Scrafton getting the start. Given the experience of the Highlanders pair of Alex Ainley and Tom Franklin it is an interesting move. But the Blues have the back-up provided by Kaino and Luatua which could be a vital asset.

First five-eighths Bryn Gatland was one of the surprising omissions from the Super Rugby squads after his Mitre 10 Cup efforts with North Harbour last year, but injury to Ihaia West has provided him with an opening which could give his career a decided boost. His appetite for pressure play was seen in the North Harbour win over Wellington in the Championship semi-final and in the final at Forsyth Barr Stadium over Otago.


Highlanders: 1.Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2.Liam Coltman, 3.Siosuia Halanukonuka, 4.Alex Ainley, 5.Tom Franklin, 6.Elliot Dixon, 7.Dillon Hunt, 8.Luke Whitelock, 9.Aaron Smith, 10.Marty Banks, 11.Patrick Osborne, 12.Richard Buckman, 13.Malakai Fekitoa, 14.Tevita Li, 15.Ben Smith (c).

Reserves: 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: 1.Pauliasi Manu, 2.James Parsons (captain), 3.Charlie Faumuina, 4.Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 5.Scott Scrafton, 6.Jerome Kaino, 7.Blake Gibson, 8.Steven Luatua, 9.Augustine Pulu, 10.Piers Francis, 11.Melani Nanai, 12.George Moala, 13.Rieko Ioane, 14.Matt Duffie, 15.Michael Collins.

Substitutes: 16.Matt Moulds, 17.Sam Prattley, 18.Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19.Patrick Tuipulotu, 20.Akira Ioane, 21.Billy Guyton, 22.Bryn Gatland, 23.Sonny Bill Williams.