The Highlanders and Blues clash in an all-New Zealand 2018 Super Rugby opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday evening.
The Blues failed to beat any New Zealand opposition last season and finished last by some distance in the Kiwi conference. They have lost four of their last five matches against the Highlanders.
Perennial underachievers, the Auckland outfit’s supporters will continue to hold high expectations for a side rich in talent, boasting a backline to rival the rest of the New Zealand conference and a back-row most would envy.
The Highlanders, by contrast, have been a much more consistent outfit, having attained the same return of 11 wins in 15 matches over the last two seasons.
It remains to be seen whether newly-appointed coach Aaron Mauger can deliver the same consistency that had become customary under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown’s tenures.
Mauger, just 37, comes highly-rated as one of the game’s greatest young thinkers and has experience of coaching at the highest level with Leicester Tigers in the Premiership.
It is a clash which features numerous mouthwatering personal duels, with players on one hand contesting for a win for their franchise, and an All Blacks jersey on the other.
With both sides boasting such exciting back-lines, the battle will be surely be won upfront and at the breakdown among the forwards as it is the team that can secure front-foot ball, that will allow for their exciting runners to flourish.
The last time the sides met:
The Highlanders edged a thrilling – and bruising – all-New Zealand encounter 26-20 under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin after trailing 20-13 at half-time. Tries from Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa as well 16 points from the boot from Marty Banks proved too much for the Blues who scored through Charlie Faumuina and lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti while fly-half Piers Francis was on target with both conversions as well as two penalties.
Highlanders head coach Aaron Mauger has made just one change to his team. Inside centre Teihorangi Walden earns a start, while versatile outside back Matt Faddes moves to the replacements.
In the forwards, only two specialist locks have been selected, while loose forwards Dan Pryor and Elliot Dixon have both been included on the bench. Prop, Tyrel Lomax, is the only player listed who will make his debut for the Highlanders if he takes the field.
Mauger is looking forward to the encounter, “for us this game is an opportunity for the players to put a performance on the park, throughout the preseason we have had a real focus on producing a performance that we and our supporters can be proud of. It’s great we have the opening match at our home ground for the Gordon Hunter trophy; it gives us a really good opportunity to connect with our people”.
The match will be played for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy which is currently held by the Highlanders. Gordon Hunter coached both the Highlanders and the Blues, the trophy has been played for 16 times since 2002 with both teams having won eight games.
Meanwhile, Blues Head coach Tana Umaga today named six current and three former All Blacks in his squad for the opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium, while there are four players to make their Super Rugby debuts and two others wearing the Blues jersey for the first time.
The Blues backline looks full of attacking flair, including Rieko Ioane, Matt Duffie, Sonny Bill Williams and George Moala, who cemented the Blues’ victory at the recent Brisbane Global 10s.
New captain Augustine Pulu starts at scrum-half inside Bryn Gatland, who has his fifth game for the Blues at fly-half, on the back of some strong performances last year.
Experienced James Parsons is flanked in the front row by All Black scrummaging powerhouse Ofa Tuungafasi and Alex Hodgman, who gets his second start after a standout season for Canterbury in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, who proved themselves as a key pairing in Super Rugby last year, will start together in the middle row for the ninth time, with an in-form Akira Ioane at number eight with two North Harbour loose forwards in Murphy Taramai and Glenn Preston.
All Black Patrick Tuipulotu, back after a niggling injury, will come off the bench as well Blues newcomers Leni Apisai, Mike Tamoaieta, Jonathan Ruru, Daniel Kirkpatrick and loose forward brackets, Antonio Kiri Kiri and Sione Havili.
The Blues have 12 players not considered because of injury, including Jerome Kaino and Jimmy Tupou, who coach Umaga is giving an additional week to shake off minor injuries.
It is an important opening game for the Blues who enjoyed a productive pre-season that included the victory at Brisbane.
“Everyone is excited to get the season underway and I’m pleased with the attitude and application from our players in pre-season,” said Umaga.
“We continued to improve last year but we know that we need to do better against our fellow New Zealand teams, especially with two full derby rounds this year, and also deliver on those key moments in what is going to be a very tight and tough season.
“We have a few players with longer-term injuries, and some with lesser injuries that could have possibly played if pushed, but this is a long season and player welfare is really important.”
Form: The Blues are coming off the back of that morale-boosting victory over the Hurricanes in the final of the Brisbane Tens in which George Moala snatched it at the death with a sensational individual effort beating several defenders to power over the try-line.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders crushed the Waratahs 55-29 in a warm-up match in Queenstown.
2017: Highlanders won 26-20 in Dunedin
2017: Highlanders won 16-12 in Auckland
2016: Blues won 33-31 in Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 44-7 in Auckland
2015: Highlanders won 30-24 in Dunedin
2014: Blues won 30-12 in Auckland
2014: Highlanders won 29-21 in Dunedin
2013: Highlanders won 38-28 in Dunedin
2013: Blues won 29-18 in Auckland
2012: Highlanders won 30-27 in Dunedin
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Sione Havili/Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai
Date: Friday, February 23
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
Television match official: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)