Preview: Blues v Highlanders
Thursday, June 11, 2015 James Mortimer Getty Images
Eden Park, Auckland
Played: 25, 1996-2015
Blues wins: 15
Highlanders wins: 10
Blues points: 678
Highlanders points: 526
Last played: Highlanders 30 Blues 24, 18.04.15 in Dunedin
Round 18 teams: http://bit.ly/1TdaLKQ
Form: In 2006 and 2012 the Blues failed to defeat a New Zealand team, and they will be keen to avoid that occurring for a third year.
However while theories abound as to why the Blues are at the bottom of the Kiwi Conference, one thing is indisputable – the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders are now legitimate title challengers and as a consequence one team in NZ was always going to struggle.
Most of the Blues offensive metrics have them ranked in the top half of all the sides, while they are by tackle percentage (87.7) the best tacklers even though they have conceded more points and tries than the coaching staff would prefer.
The Highlanders however are in the midst of a landmark season, winning ten games, scoring 47 tries and 406 points – all of which are franchise records.
Already confirmed as a participant in the 2015 Super Rugby Finals Series, coach Jamie Joseph knows that if the Southerners can defeat the Blues for the sixth time in their last eight encounters, they will be a strong chance to grab home rights.
Key players: This will be, unless the ageless warrior makes a bold decision later this season, the last time Keven Mealamu plays for the Blues, with a titanic 174 games played in the competition so far.
Mealamu will not play alongside long time comrade Tony Woodcock, who has played 149 Super Rugby games, as well as a host of All Blacks team-mates (including usual captain Jerome Kaino) as the Blues have had to contend with the worst injury toll of any of the 15 sides.
Twelve players are injured and a further three are in Italy with the New Zealand Under 20s.
The Blues have won three matches since round nine but if they are victorious this weekend at Eden Park it will be their fourth win at New Zealand’s biggest rugby ground in eight games this year.
Charles Piutau plays his last match for the Blues and will want to impress the Test selectors, while the likes of George Moala (49 beaten defenders, 4th in Super Rugby) and benchman Lolagi Visinia (847 metres, 10th in Super Rugby) will want to make a final impression.
The Highlanders welcome back two All Blacks, Aaron and Ben Smith, although Test centre Malakai Fekitoa is out.
Otherwise the men from the Deep South are in rare space, their casualty ward isn’t as stacked as it has been in recent years, and the bulk of their key players are firing.
Waisake Naholo is one of the most dangerous operators in the competition, with statistics comparable to the likes of Julian Savea and Israel Folau.
Patrick Osbourne and Lima Sopoaga have formed a potent 10/11 partnership while the tourist’s pack, with zero All Blacks, has caused some big name forward units some major issues.
Squad update: Mealamu will lead the team in his 175th and final Super Rugby match, while fellow All Black James Parsons will come off the bench for his 50th cap for the Blues.
Three players who are leaving for overseas will start against the Highlanders. Brendon O’Connor, who along with Jamison Gibson-Park are the only Blues players who have played in every game this season, will head to Leicester in England later in the year.
Two others heading overseas are welcomed back from injury in Charles Piutau, returning after five weeks out with a knee injury, and Angus Ta’avao. Piutau will play at fullback and Ta’avao in the front row after recovering from a shoulder strain.
There will be a debut Super Rugby start for North Harbour forward Chris Vui, while Northland’s former Tongan international Jack Ram comes into the reserves for the first time.
The Landers have made ten positional and personnel changes to the team that was humbled by the Hurricanes in Napier.
The front row is completely changed and features Daniel Lienert-Brown in his first run on game for the season, Joe Latta will also have his first game in the starting fifteen. In the back row Elliot Dixon moves to blindside, Dan Pryor returns at number eight and Gareth Evans moves to the bench.
Young Otago lock, Jackson Hemopo, comes into the playing 23 for the injured Tom Franklin in what will be his debut for the Highlanders.
In the backs, Shaun Treeby, will play his 50th game for the franchise and he will partner the versatile Richard Buckman in the centre as Malakai Fekitoa has a groin injury that will sideline him for this week. All Blacks Ben and Aaron Smith return as does form winger Patrick Osborne reuniting the lethal back three of Naholo, Smith and Osborne.
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