Preview: Highlanders vs Blues

The Highlanders will have six debutants in their starting XV when they take on the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.

It's safe to say little is expected of Jamie Joseph's men. The Dunedin-based franchise finished 14th last season and that was with the likes of Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Colin Slade. They are now all gone, but the Highlanders can't do that much worse without them.

Joseph has flipped the ethos from one focused on the big names to a tightly-bound squad, whose confidence and unity has been built up through a tough pre-season. Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Osborne all make their debuts in the backs, along with Shane Christie, Gareth Evans and Kane Hames in the pack.

Still, the Highlanders have standout players in key positions. Ben Smith would have certainly been last year's IRB Player of the Year had it not been for Kieran Read. Aaron Smith turned a tough year in Super Rugby on its head with a strong run of form during the Rugby Championship.

The pack isn't short of strong carriers either, with Nasi Manu, Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn, while Liam Coltman could be the next great All Blacks hooker. So there is some hope.

The Blues travel to Dunedin with a star-studded backline, but no Benji Marshall. The former rugby league star has to settle for a bench spot with Chris Noakes running the ship from flyhalf, partnered at halfback by Piri Weepu. Marshall will no doubt get a cameo at some stage, whether at flyhalf or fullback, with coach John Kirwan cautious enough not to throw him in too early.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Liam Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diáz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O'Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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