Super Rugby Match Preview
Friday, 23rd February, 2018
Highlanders vs Blues
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kickoff: 19h35 Local Time, 06h35 GMT, 08h45 SA Time
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
The first New Zealand derby of 2018.
And it could get very interesting, with a whole heap of All Blacks, current and past, together with a bunch of aspirant All Blacks on show. I am pretty sure my old buddy Tom will be in the stadium to watch this one.. If he can tear himself away from the beach.
The Blues have named six current and three former All Blacks in their match-day squad for the game at Forsyth Barr Stadium, while there are four players making their Super Rugby debuts and two others wearing the Blues jersey for the first time.
The Blues backline boasts some real striking force, with Rieko Ioane, Matt Duffie, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala suggesting exciting times. Augustine Pulu starts at scrum-half inside Bryn Gatland, who has his fifth game for the Blues at fly-half, taking over from Ihaia West who has gone to the Hurricanes.
James Parsons at hooker will scrum between All Black Ofa Tuungafasi and Alex Hodgman, who gets his second start for the Blues.
Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, will start in the second row with Akira Ioane at number eight with Murphy Taramai and Glenn Preston on the flanks.
All Black Patrick Tuipulotu, will come off the bench as well as Leni Apisai, Mike Tamoaieta, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Antonio Kiri Kiri and Sione Havili.
The Blues have 12 players who were not considered for selection because of injury, including Jerome Kaino and Jimmy Tupou.
The Highlanders have made just one change to the team that played the Crusaders in a warm-up fixture last Thursday.
Inside centre Teihorangi Walden starts, as Matt Faddes moves to the replacements.
In the forwards, only two specialist locks have been selected, while loose forwards Dan Pryor and Elliot Dixon have both been included on the bench.
Reserve prop Tyrel Lomax is the only player who will make his debut for the Highlanders, if he takes the field.
The Highlanders are fielding a powerful back division, with Ben Smith back from his sabbatical, teaming up with Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo, and Tevita Li. Their midfield is Rob Thompson and Teihorangi Walden, perhaps slightly less known than the half backs and the back three.
Amongst the forwards the Highlanders boast some pretty experienced names, with Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, and Liam Squire as the loose trio, Tom Franklin, and Jackson Hemopo locking the scrum, and Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon, and Daniel Lienert-Brown making up the front row.
A crowd of about 16,000 is expected at the first game of the Super Rugby season in New Zealand. About 12,000 tickets had already been sold by Wednesday.
On paper, the two backlines suggest that a mouth-watering contest looms. Both teams feature big names and big talents. If you like watching the sheer firepower of New Zealand backline rugby at play, this could be a great game to watch.
Except for one tiny problem. I am not sure that the Blues have the forward power to give their talented backs the kind of ball they need to launch their attacks. They are up against the Highlanders, a team with one of the better set-pieces in Super Rugby, with a loose trio that dominates the breakdown and the collision areas.
If the Blues want to win this one, they will need to tame the Highlanders pack, and that is not going to be easy. They will need to be very quick on the counter-attack, and very very solid under the high ball.
Another interesting aspect of this game will be the two slightly contrasting styles of the two teams. The Blues tend to run the ball wide as often as possible, while the Highlanders frequently go conservative, and play a kick-and-chase game, using the educated boots of both Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga to get the ball up, with the hugely experienced Ben Smith leading the chasers.
Of course, kicking onto that Highlanders’ back three is not a great idea either, they are amongst the best counter-attackers in the business.
Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting!
The Highlanders are a settled outfit, despite the changes in the coaching box. The players know each other, they know their game plans and tactics, they are well salted in Super Rugby.
The Blues have some exciting players, but there is that niggle that their pack is not quite up there. The Blues also gone 11 games without a win against New Zealand opposition, so they will have the added motivation of trying to stop the rot.
I do not think they have the forward firepower to stop the Highlanders.
It will be tight, it might even be dour at times, and there will be errors, it is early season stuff. But I cannot see past the experience and solidity of the Highlanders outfit. The Highlanders, by 9 points.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai