Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo will be the danger man in Auckland on Friday. RYAN VREDE reports.
There was much debate about whether the Highlanders resting a clutch of their key players last week was the right decision. However, they are restored to something resembling full-strength for their trip to Auckland and are widely expected to negotiate the Blues' challenge comfortably.
The hosts have been a shambles this season, while the Landers have forged themselves into a highly competent outfit. The dialling back of their traditionally expansive game in favour of a more pragmatic one (they are ranked second for kicks from hands), where territory and pressure defence is stressed, has been central to this.
Indeed it has made them more potent rather than less so, with the heat they put on the receiver, kick returner, runner or at the breakdown creating plenty of broken-field situations for their strong back division to exploit. None are more dangerous than Naholo, who has been one of the tournament's best players.
He ranks second in clean breaks, metres run and tries scored and has beaten the fifth-most defenders. Naholo has that deadly combination of size, speed and skill and has used it to the Landers' advantage often throughout the campaign. When he isn't scoring, he is drawing multiple defenders, and in doing so, creating space for his support runners (he ranks 11th in try assists) to exploit.
The Blues will struggle for an effective tactical rebuttal to the Landers and will retain belief in their ball-in-hand approach. Given that the Landers have been defensively sound and combatant at the breakdown (second for turnovers), the hosts are in for a long night on defence, particularly with Naholo lining up an unset defensive line often throughout the match.
The return of Ben and Aaron Smith to the Dunedin-based side's run-on XV will further bolster their potency. In total there are 10 positional and personnel changes to the team that lost to the Hurricanes in Napier. The front row is completely changed, with Daniel Lienert-Brown making his first start of the season, along with lock Joe Latta. In the back row, Elliot Dixon moves to blindside flank and Dan Pryor returns at No 8. In the backs, Richard Buckman will start at outside centre in Fekitoa's absence, with Patrick Osborne on the left wing.
In one of six changes for the Blues, Keven Mealamu will start at hooker in his final Vodacom Super Rugby game for the franchise. It will be his 175th Super Rugby cap. In other changes to the pack, Angus Ta’avao starts at loosehead prop ahead of Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Hayden Triggs starts in the second row and Chris Vui runs on at blindside flank, with Joe Edwards moving to No 8, replacing Airi Hunt. Among the backs, Charles Piutau returns at fullback after a five-week injury lay-off and Jamison Gibson-Park is favoured at scrumhalf, with Jimmy Cowan named as a reserve.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 15, Highlanders 10
In Auckland: Blues 10, Highlanders 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The Blues have won six of their last seven at home to the Highlanders and have only lost twice at home to the Dunedin-based side in Super Rugby.
– The last eight meetings between these two sides have seen an average aggregate score of 52 points per game.
– The Aucklanders have lost their last four at home to fellow New Zealand sides, with their most recent two defeats in that run each coming by over 20 points.
– The Blues boast the best tackle success in Super Rugby this season (88%).
– The Blues (9.1) and the Highlanders (9.2) have won fewer penalties than any other team this season.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Blues||Ihaia West (102)||George Moala, Jerome Kaino, Melani Nanai (3)||Lolagi Visinia (853)||Brendon O'Connor (131)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (150)||Waisake Naholo (9)||Waisake Naholo (1148)||Elliot Dixon (135)|
Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Hamish Northcott, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Joe Edwards, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Chris Vui, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16. James Parsons, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Lolagi Visinia.
Highlanders – 5 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Richard Buckman, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Latta, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Kurt Baker.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images