PREVIEW: Blues v Highlanders

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

Match details: Blues v Highlanders, Eden Park, 7.30pm, Friday, April 20

Played: 30
Won: Blues 16, Highlanders 14
Last time: Blues 34-41 Highlanders, Dunedin, February 23, 2018


With only two wins from seven outings, the Blues are the lowest ranked of New Zealand's sides. They lost to the Highlanders in the first round (34-41), then lost to the Chiefs (21-27), but caused a big surprise in coming from behind to beat the Lions at Ellis Park (38-35) but then went down to the Stormers (20-37). A two-point loss to the Chiefs (19-21) was followed last weekend with a (24-10) win away over the Sunwolves. The Highlanders started with their win over the Blues but then had the first of two byes they have had in the first seven weeks. But they have impressed, at home especially, beaten the Stormers (33-15), the Crusaders (25-17) and the Brumbies (43-17) while away they lost (12-29) to the Hurricanes and (22-27) to the Chiefs.


There's an air of the next generation surrounding the loose forward contest. Flanker Dillon Hunt knows well the advantages stemming from taking opportunities when they arise through injury and his is a shining example of that having quickly emerged to achieve All Blacks status. He is an increasing hub for the Highlanders' style of play and has worked well with Shannon Frizell and Luke Whitelock in recent weeks. The Blues have No.8 Akira Ioane at the core of their play in the loose, but the return of flanker Kara Pryor on the side of the scrum has seen an increased presence by the Blues when defensive pressure has been needed while blindside flanker Dalton Papali'i has demonstrated his own qualities with impressive contributions. Friday's contest in this area promises to be fascinating.


If the Blues are to penetrate the Highlanders' line they are going to have to thread their way through one of the better defensive set-ups in New Zealand. Three of the Highlanders are among the top six tacklers in Super Rugby this year. No.8 Luke Whitelock has made 90 tackles which places him third on the list. Lock Tom Franklin has made 86 and is fifth while one behind is Dillon Hunt who has made 85 tackles. Out of interest, Jaguares flanker Pablo Matera and Lions flanker Franco Mostert share first place with 93 tackles. No other team has three tacklers in the top 10 although the Jaguares and Waratahs have two. Against the Highlanders' defensive strength is the carrying ability for the Blues where injured fullback Michael Collins is 7th on 81 while Akira Ioane is 10th on 76.


Not everything has been going the Blues' way this season but there has been little wrong with its lineout. The side has the second best lineout in the competition with a 90.6 win percentage. The Lions are top with 91.7 percent while the Highlanders rank only 13th on 81 percent. Things are much closer in scrummaging where the Blues top the board on 94 percent with the Highlanders third on 92 percent.


The Highlanders have never won four consecutive games against the Blues but have won nine of their last 12 games against them. The Blues haven't won a New Zealand derby, ironically against the Highlanders, since February 2016. (Opta)


Blues: 1.Pauliasi Manu, 2.James Parsons (captain), 3.Ofa Tu'ungafasi/Mike Tamoaieta, 4.Patrick Tuipulotu, 5.Jimmy Tupou, 6.Dalton Papali'i, 7.Kara Pryor, 8.Akira Ioane, 9.Jonathan Ruru, 10.Bryn Gatland, 11.Rieko Ioane, 12.TJ Faiane, 13.Orbyn Leger, 14.Jordan Hyland, 15.Stephen Perofeta.

Substitutes: 16.Matt Moulds/Leni Apisai, 17.Ross Wright, 18.Mike Tamoaieta/Sione Mafileo, 19.Ben Neenee, 20.Murphy Taramai, 21.Sam Nock, 22.Tumua Manu, 23.Matt Duffie.

Highlanders: 1.Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2.Ash Dixon (captain), 3.Siate Tokolahi, 4.Jackson Hemopo, 5.Tom Franklin, 6.Shannon Frizell, 7.Dillon Hunt, 8.Luke Whitelock, 9.Kayne Hammington, 10.Lima Sopoaga, 11.Tevita Li, 12.Teihorangi Walden, 13.Rob Thompson, 14.Waisake Naholo, 15.Ben Smith (captain).

Substitutes: 16.Liam Coltman, 17.Aki Seiuli, 18.Tyrel Lomax, 19.Alex Ainley, 20.Elliot Dixon, 21.Aaron Smith, 22.Fletcher Smith, 23.Matt Faddes.