Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has refreshed his forward pack and welcomes back All Black loose forward Liam Squire and captain Ben Smith for their clash with the Blues.
Preparing for what will no doubt be a physical encounter Brown has restored Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Alex Ainley and Elliot Dixon to the starting eight. Squire makes his return after four weeks on the sideline and will make an impact from the bench.
“It’s good to welcome Ben and Liam back because as we all know the NZ derby matches are incredibly intense games , you have to be at your very best to come away with the win. Being at home this time in front of our fans, on a dry track, will hopefully help us put on a big performance.” said Brown.
The Gordon Hunter Memorial trophy has been played for between the two teams since 2002. Hunter coached Otago from 1992 to1995 and the Highlanders in the inaugural year of Super Rugby in 1996. He then went on to become a selector and assistant coach of the All Blacks from 1996 to 1999 before becoming the head coach of the Blues in 2000.
The Blues are set to welcome back three key players for the clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
The match will feature the long-awaited return of Sonny Bill Williams, who will make his debut for the Blues from the bench after rupturing his Achilles at the Rio Olympics in August.
All Black Steven Luatua will also return to the side after suspension, which allows coach Tana Umaga to rest Jimmy Tupou who has carried a significant workload in the opening six games.
Outstanding young flanker Blake Gibson is also back to full fitness to resume his openside loose forward role, while 21-year-old All Black Rieko Ioane earns a recall to the starting line-up after an outstanding contribution off the bench in the win over the Western Force last weekend.
“We have missed Steven’s undoubted skills and it also allows Jerome (Kaino) to return to his role at No 6 where he is regarded as the best in the world,” Umaga said. “Rieko is an extraordinary talent and showed his class off the bench to earn his spot back in the starting line-up.”
Auckland lock Scott Scrafton gets his first start at lock to add to the Blues line-up resources after an impressive effort as a replacement last weekend, with Patrick Tuipulotu to come off the bench.
He’s joined on the bench by All Black Ofa Tu’ungafasi, along with Maori All Blacks Billy Guyton and Akira Ioane.
Also coming on to the bench is North Harbour’s Bryn Gatland, who trained with the Blues pre-season and comes off a stint with the Crusaders, filling in for the injured first fives Ihaia West and Stephen Perofeta.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams
Date: Saturday, April 8
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)