Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo will test the Blues' defence in Dunedin on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The 23-year-old won his personal battle against fellow Fijian Nemani Nadolo last weekend, scoring two tries to take his tally for the season to six, the most in the tournament. Naholo has also made the most clean breaks (14), beaten the fourth most defenders (27) and made the fourth most running metres (620) this season, according to the Vodacom Rugby App.
The Highlanders will be hoping for another match-influencing performance from the 102kg, 1.86m winger on Saturday, while the Blues will need to shut him down quickly before he can build up a head of steam. Once he does, he is difficult to stop.
The Highlanders' shock 25-20 win against the Crusaders took them to 24 log points, the same as the SA conference-leading Bulls, but they are still seven behind the Hurricanes, and need to keep winning if they're to haul them in.
Jamie Joseph has reshuffled his pack for Saturday's clash, with loosehead prop Kane Hames, hooker Liam Coltman and No 4 lock Mark Reddish coming in. Jason Emery will start at inside centre ahead of Shaun Treeby, who takes a break, in the only change to the backline.
The Blues finally have something to show for their efforts this season – a 16-14 win against the Brumbies in Auckland last weekend – but are not as bad as their 1-7 record suggests, having lost five matches by seven or fewer points. Still, they are unlikely to break their three-match losing streak in Dunedin against an in-form Highlanders team that has everything to play for.
With Luke Braid injured and Steven Luatua being rested, Blues coach John Kirwan has opted to start 19-year-old Akira Ioane at blindside flank on Saturday. The inside centre and left wing positions have yet to be finalised due to injuries, with scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan back in the match 23 following the birth of his second child.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 15, Highlanders 9
In Dunedin: Highlanders 7, Blues 5
STATS AND FACTS
– Seven of the Highlanders’ last eight matches have been settled by a losing bonus-point margin.
– The Highlanders have won their last three at home to the Blues but lost the previous three before that; they have never won four on the bounce at home to the Auckland-based side.
– The last seven clashes between the sides have seen an average of 51 points on the board and no fewer than 42, which was in their most recent meeting last year.
– The last three visits of the Blues to the Highlanders have produced 173 points; an average of 57 per match.
– The Highlanders’ opponents have won more scrums at a better success rate (93%) than against any other side. However the Dunedin-based team has forced the lowest tackling success rate (82%) from their opponents.
– Both these sides have scored just one opening quarter try this season. The Blues have scored the fewest final quarter tries too (one).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (59)||Waisake Naholo (6)||Waisake Naholo (620)||Elliot Dixon (80)|
|Blues||Ihaia West (62)||Jerome Kaino (3)||Charles Piutau (547)||Jerome Kaino (59)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Richard Buckman.
Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 George Moala/Francis Saili, 11 Melani Nanai/Tevita Li, 10 Dan Bowden, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jerome Kaino (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock/Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Francis Saili/Hamish Northcott.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images