Preview: Blues vs Highlanders

The Blues will hope to maintain their unbeaten home record this season when they meet the Highlanders on Saturday.

John Kirwan's side have won only two of their five matches – both at Eden Park – but bagged enough bonus points to put themselves in the top half of the table.

Last week's win over the Cheetahs was a 70-pointer thriller that underlined the Blues' intent to run the ball from anywhere. If you leak plenty of points but score more than your opponent, then there's no problem, but against more effective teams than the Cheetahs a sturdier defensive effort from the Blues will be required. After all, the Blues have conceded 160 points already this season, the second-highest number in the tournament (apart from the Cheetahs) at an average of 32 a game.

Plenty of attention is put on the effectiveness of the Blues backline, and rightly so when you have the likes of George Moala, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau to unleash. But the work of their back row caught the eye against the Cheetahs. Steven Luatua is backing up his breakthrough year in 2013 with a powerful running game, making him difficult to stop at close range. Combining that with the work ethic of Luke Braid, who was everywhere at Eden Park, gives you two key players. Kirwan has the luxury of bringing in Jerome Kaino, whose lineout work is a boost. That's a very talented back row at the Blues disposal and they'll need them working at their hardest to combat the Highlanders' industrious trio of Elliot Dixon, Shane Christie and Nasi Manu.

Since blowing the Blues away in their season opener, all three of the Highlanders' matches have gone down to the wire; pipped by the Force and Chiefs before holding on last weekend against the Hurricanes.

The clearout of a number of All Blacks is actually working. Colin Slade's departure has given Liam Sopoaga no excuses and he responded with an excellent goal-kicking performance against the Canes as the Highlanders bossed the breakdown.

You can't discount the threat of their wide players either. Twenty-one-year-old Malakai Fekitoa was relatively unknown coming into the tournament but his try in round two and his monster hit on Conrad Smith mean that everyone knows who he is now. And Ben Smith has been supreme as ever.

Neither side's set piece is perfect, operating at the lineout with 78.6% and 77.5% respectively. The Blues scrum, though, is the least successful at 67% and you sense that the Highlanders, with their 88% success rate, will captialise in that area.

Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Tom Donnelly, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Pita Ahki, 23 Benji Marshall.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.

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Simon Borchardt