The Highlanders' back three will test the Blues' defence in Auckland on Friday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Highlanders struck the perfect balance between running and kicking in the 2015 season. Their superior decision-making and execution allowed them to conquer the much-vaunted Hurricanes in the 2015 final.
In 2016, the Highlanders will be the team to beat. They come into the new season with a target on their backs.
The current champions will begin the new campaign with an away match against the Blues. They should fancy their chances against a Blues outfit that has battled in recent seasons (the Blues finished last in the New Zealand conference in 2014 and 2015).
What's more, the Auckland-based side has a new coach in Tana Umaga. It may take some time for the new-look team to gel.
The Highlanders should follow the same formula that brought them success in 2015. They should back their pack to force turnovers, and then their halfbacks to make the most of the counter-attacking opportunities.
The Highlanders have some of the best finishers in the business. All Blacks fullback Ben Smith had an outstanding 2015 Super Rugby season and was one of the stars of the subsequent World Cup. Waisake Naholo scored 13 Super Rugby tries in 2015 to break a Highlanders record. And then there's Patrick Osborne, another powerful and deceptively agile runner who should not be underestimated.
The Highlanders' halfback pairing of Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga will look to bring these players into the game from the set pieces. Smith and Sopoaga will, of course, look to make full use of Smith, Naholo and Osborne in broken play.
Statistically, the Blues had the best tackle success rate in 2015. They will struggle to replicate that effort this Friday, however, if their forward play and tactical kicking are below par. In that event, they will fail to contain the Highlanders' back three.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 15, Highlanders 9
In Auckland: Blues 10, Highlanders 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won six of their last eight matches against the Blues and outscored them 74-31 on their way to two wins over them in 2015.
– The Blues have won 10 of the 13 matches when hosting the Highlanders in Super Rugby, though their last such fixture was a 44-7 loss and they’ve never lost consecutive home games to the Highlanders.
– The Highlanders won four straight matches on their way to victory in the 2015 final and will be looking to start the season with a fifth straight win for the first time since they won six on the trot in 2005.
– The Highlanders averaged more turnovers won per game (nine) than any other side in 2015.
– The Blues had the best tackle success rate (88%) of any team in 2015.
|Team||Top point-scorer 2015||Top try-scorer 2015||Most metres gained 2015||Most tackles 2015|
|Blues||Ihaia West (104)||Melani Nanai Vai (3)||Lolagi Visinia (965)||Brendon O’Connor (144)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (191)||Waisake Naholo (13)||Waisake Naholo (1369)||Elliot Dixon (173)|
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Rene Ranger.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes.
Referee – Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees – Paul Williams (New Zealand), Bredon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO – Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images