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Preview: Blues v Highlanders

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Sportal.co.nz     25 May 2012     Getty Images

And the Highlanders looked good putting the Bulls away to remain in touch. It would take a huge upset for the home team to win this one.

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday May 26 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 19; Blues 13, Highlanders 6.

LAST TIME: April 20, 2012 (Dunedin, week nine) – Highlanders 30-27 Blues.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Blues continue to pile up the injuries and leading players Keven Mealamu (calf), Benson Stanley (repeat concussions) and Charlie Faumuina (calf) are in the long-stay ward for now. Chris Lowrey might be back after his concussion, but even if the Blues aren’t quite in ‘last man standing’ territory just yet, they’re certainly calling up the territorials. That said, Pat Lam has finally waded into his underperforming team with the selectorial axe, making wholesale changes from Christchurch and benching three of his All Blacks. The Highlanders have their long-standing loose forward issues but most other areas of the team are in pretty good shape; the only forced changes from last week see Nasi Manu and Siale Piutau drop out of the matchday 22 with Nick Crosswell going to No 8 and Kurt Baker starting on the wing. Jamie Joseph has made other optional changes in the front row and inside backs.

FORM:
Blues:
Round 9: lost to Highlanders 27-30 (a)
Round 10: lost to Reds 11-23 (h)
Round 11: lost to Hurricanes 19-35 (a)
Round 12: beat Lions 25-3 (h)
Round 13: lost to Crusaders 12-59 (a)

Highlanders:
Round 9: beat Blues 30-27 (h)
Round 10: beat Cheetahs 36-33 (a)
Round 11: lost to Sharks 16-28 (a)
Round 12: lost to Hurricanes 20-26 (h)
Round 13: beat Bulls 16-11 (h)

Last week we suggested that a halfway decent team would put the Blues away if they continued to make the errors that they did against the Lions, even though they won that one, and on Saturday night the Crusaders were a lot better than halfway decent. That loss was deep into red-face territory for the Blues, who conceded the greatest margin and second highest total in franchise history, and every point of it was deserved. Long before the end the Blues looked out of their depth and nine tries told an eloquent tale of their inability to contain any part of the Crusaders’ game. As they are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with five rounds left, the season cannot end fast enough for the Blues.

The Highlanders were polar opposites of the Blues last week, winning an extremely hard match against a good team and doing it by overturning a halftime deficit against the side with the best second-half record in the competition. The Highlanders are right up there for recovery ability, as they have won six matches they did not lead at the interval, and that never-say-die attitude has won a lot of plaudits, many friends and plenty of close matches. A tough forward pack paved the way for some enterprising back play, but in the end the big grunters have to take most of the applause. That win keeps the Highlanders right in the hunt, only two points outside the six.

WHO'S HOT: It is hard to find anything good to say about a team that was down 0-45 inside 50 minutes, so perhaps the kindest thing to do is gloss over the first hour. Lachie Munro picked up a couple of nice tries at the end and did some good work in the build-up to each one, but that was about it. None of the Blues will be keeping any part of this match in their show reels, that’s for sure.

The Highlanders had many players worthy of mentions in despatches, and one who stood out despite a tough week was Jarrad Hoeata. After being left out of the All Black squad, he came back stronger and had a storming game, once almost scoring a try and then a few minutes later making no mistake. Add on his tight work and general play, all of which was good, and he had a day a bloke could be pleased with. Mike Delany was another whose evening worked out nicely; he kicked well, caused all kinds of trouble with the way he attacked the line and set his backs away cleanly whenever he had the chance. Tamati Ellison played an influential role in midfield, causing problems with his direct attacking play and stopping plenty of Bulls raids with some excellent defence. He has become Mr Reliable in a backline that often threatens to be more than just steady.

WE THINK: You would struggle to back the Blues to win a raffle they held all the tickets in at present and there’s no way they will be anything other than severe underdogs for this match. The Highlanders’ generation-long struggles at Eden Park can be ignored this time; the southerners should win this match and do so with a degree of comfort.

TEAMS:
Blues: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. James Parsons, 3. Tevita Mailau, 4. Liaki Moli, 5. Filo Paulo, 6. Steven Luatua, 7. Daniel Braid or Luke Braid, 8. Luke Braid or Peter Saili, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. Sherwin Stowers, 12. Michael Hobbs, 13. Francis Saili, 14. David Raikuna, 15. Hadleigh Parkes.

Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Angus Ta’avao, 18. Ali Williams, 19. Daniel Braid or Saili or Dan Pryor, 20. Piri Weepu, 21. Ma’a Nonu, 22. Lachie Munro.

Highlanders: 1. Jamie Mackintosh (capt), 2. Andrew Hore, 3. Ma’afu Fia, 4. Jarrad Hoeata, 5. Hoani MacDonald, 6. Adam Thomson, 7. Tim Boys, 8. Nick Crosswell, 9. Jimmy Cowan, 10. Chris Noakes, 11. Hosea Gear, 12. Phil Burleigh, 13. Tamati Ellison, 14. Kurt Baker, 15. Ben Smith.

Replacements: 16. Jason Rutledge, 17. Bronson Murray, 18. Josh Bekhuis, 19. Scott Fuglistaller, 20. Aaron Smith, 21. Mike Delany, 22. Kendrick Lynn.

REFEREE: Glen Jackson (NZ)