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Preview: Highlanders v Blues

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Sportal.co.nz     19 Apr 2012     Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Friday April 20 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 18; Highlanders 5, Blues 13.

LAST TIME: June 17, 2011 (Auckland) - Blues 33-16 Highlanders.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Highlanders have added some cover for a deepening injury list by getting a couple of former players, first-five Mike Delany and flanker Hale T-Pole, to answer SOS calls and put in short-term stints in their overseas down-time. Another worry centred around Ben Smith, who took a head knock against the Stormers and was on day-to-day watch through the week; he failed a late fitness test. Early in the Sharks match Keven Mealamu aggravated a calf problem that has been a niggle for a while now, and he will miss at least this match as a result. Rudi Wulf (shoulder) is also missing this week and the loss of those two presaged wholesale changes in the Blues. Most, however, are positional rather than personnel and unless a lot changes for the Blues this week 'Titanic' and 'rearranging the deckchairs' will be linked thoughts that spring to mind.

FORM:
Highlanders:
Round 4: beat Hurricanes 19-17 (a)
Round 5: lost to Brumbies 26-33 (a)
Round 6: beat Rebels 43-12 (h)
Round 7: lost to Stormers 6-21 (h)
Round 8: bye

Blues:
Round 4: lost to Stormers 17-27 (a)
Round 5: lost to Hurricanes 25-26 (h)
Round 6: bye
Round 7: lost to Rebels 23-34 (a)
Round 8: lost to Sharks 23-29 (h)

A couple of losses have seen the Highlanders stall in the last month but they're hardly in free-fall as they still sit second in the New Zealand conference and fifth overall. The bye might have come at a good time, as it gave Jamie Joseph a week to rest his regulars and the same time to patch over some of the gaps caused by injury. There has been nothing much wrong with the Highlanders play this year, even if they couldn't find a way past the Stormers defence. They don't have that on their own, as most teams have found that to be a tough challenge, but the Highlanders certainly did a lot of probing for a team that came up empty.

The Blues started badly at Eden Park last week, throwing a couple of careless passes that were intercepted and returned for tries before the match was 20 minutes old. From then on it was hard work, even if they did briefly hit the lead in the early part of the second spell before the Sharks came straight back with another try and added a fourth (admittedly dubious) not long afterwards. The Blues looked better than in recent weeks - until you check the handling stats, where no fewer than 17 errors killed them. For once it looked as if they were trying too hard; trouble is, the result was exactly the same as before.

WHO'S HOT: Jamie Mackintosh has been doing a lot of hard yards in the Highlanders front row and must be working his way back into consideration for national teams. He was promoted too young, and is a much better forward now than when he was an All Black. On the other side of the front row Chris King has been his usual consistent self, churning through the work and doing it well. He is closing in on 100 Super rugby matches and this milestone will be a fitting reward for a real trooper. Tamati Ellison, another one-Test All Black, has been in top form since the season began and has become one of the key backs for the Highlanders. Everything he is doing has a touch of class about it and he is providing both stability and punch to the line.

Luke Braid was something of a surprise choice as Blues captain, but he is one of the reliable players in the side and may well have a long-term future in the role. In his time with the Blues he has regularly been one of the team's best, and will need to be again against the tough Highlanders loose trio. Chris Lowrey has been largely unheralded this year but his steady work in a variety of positions means he has cemented a regular starting spot and he can be relied upon for a strong 80 minutes. One of the interesting backline changes is the placing of Rene Ranger at centre, since he is one of the big-names who have not fired in 2012. Ranger can be a game-breaker but this move may be a gamble on Pat Lam's part; we'll know the answer about 9.20 on Friday night.

WE THINK: Although the Blues have a good historical record against the Highlanders, it would be a decent upset if the visitors take the Gordon Hunter Memorial back north with them. The Blues simply are not playing well and nothing is working properly, while the Highlanders are doing the basics accurately and plenty is working as it should. The Highlanders should be good enough to win this one with maybe seven points in hand.

TEAMS:

Highlanders: 1. Jamie Mackintosh (capt), 2. Andrew Hore, 3. Chris King, 4. Josh Bekhuis, 5. Jarrad Hoeata, 6. Adam Thomson, 7. James Haskell, 8. Nasi Manu, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Mike Delany, 11. Hosea Gear, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Phil Burleigh, 14. Kade Poki, 15. Tamati Ellison.

Replacements: 16. Jason Rutledge, 17. Ma'afu Fia, 18. Culum Retallick, 19. Doug Tietjens, 20. Jimmy Cowan, 21. Chris Noakes, 22. Kurt Baker.


Blues: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Ali Williams, 5. Filo Paulo, 6. Chris Lowrey, 7. Luke Braid (capt), 8. Peter Saili, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. Benson Stanley, 12. Ma'a Nonu, 13. Rene Ranger, 14. George Moala, 15. Hadleigh Parkes.

Replacements: 16. James Parsons, 17. Tevita Mailau, 18. Liaki Moli, 19. Daniel Braid, 20. Piri Weepu, 21. Michael Hobbs, 22. David Raikuna.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)