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PREVIEW: Highlanders v Blues

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018    allblacks.com    Getty Images

MATCH DETAILS: Highlanders v Blues, 7.35pm Friday 23 February, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin. TICKETS.

Played: 29
Wins: Blues 16, Highlanders 13
Last match: Highlanders 26 Blues 20 (8 April 2017)

TALE OF THE TAPE

The Blues have been quick to put away the disappointment of 2017 with a strong preseason campaign. They opened their preseason with a stunning 45-19 win over the Chiefs before going onto win the Brisbane Tens title. The Highlanders have showed plenty of promise in their preseason campaign as well with convincing wins over both the Crusaders and Waratahs. The Highlanders will take a lot confidence from their recent record against the Blues which includes eight wins from the last 11 games played between the sides.
KEY MATCH UP
There are pivotal head to head clashes across the park but perhaps none more intriguing than at No.8. Last year both Luke Whitelock and Akira Ioane made major strides to sit behind Kieran Read as the leading backrowers in the country. The powerful pair have contrasting styles with Whitelock noted for his high work rate and inspirational leadership while Ioane is one of the most dynamic ball-runners in the country. Both players will be eyeing a permanent spot in the All Blacks and whoever comes out on top in this clash may have the inside running.

GATLAND’S CHANCE
First five-eighth has been a problem area for the Blues for a number of seasons now and is already causing issues for coach Tana Umaga with both Otere Black and Stephen Perfoeta out injured for the first month of Super Rugby at least. The injuries have opened the door for 22-year-old pivot Bryn Gatland who had an outstanding 2017 for North Harbour and starred for the Provincial Barbarians against the British & Irish Lions. Gatland said he would look to play his natural game for the Blues: "They just need me doing what we need as a team, getting to the right areas of the park and being the calm first five that plays the game I like to play anyway," Gatland said.

BENDER’S BACK

After taking a sabbatical late in 2017 to rest his body, Ben Smith is back for his tenth season with the Highlanders. The flying fullback will be delighted to face the Blues after scoring eight tries in his last eight matches against the Tana Umaga-coached side. Along with the dynamic Waisake Naholo and Tevita Li, Smith will form one of the most dangerous back-three combinations in the competition.
FAST FACT
The Blues have gone 11 games without a win against New Zealand opposition. This is their longest losing streak against Kiwi sides.

TEAMS
Highlanders:
Ben Smith (cc), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon (cc), Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Aki Seiuli, Tyrell Lomax, Elliot Dixon, Dan Pryor, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith, Matt Faddes.

Blues: Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Bryn Gatland, Augustine Pulu (capt); Akira Ioane, Murphy Taramai, Glenn Preston, Scott Scrafton, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Leni Apisai, Pauliasi Manu Michael Tamoaieta, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri,, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Melani Nanai.