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Kirwan: Highlanders well placed to surprise

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Sportal.co.nz     18 Feb 2014     Getty Images

The Highlanders are at home at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday and Kirwan said if he was in coach Jamie Joseph's shoes he would be happy.

"I would be happy if I was them. They've gone underneath the radar and everyone has written them off. They've gone about their work quietly, they're playing at home. I know Jamie and I know they'll be really, really proud and we'll be playing for the Gordon Hunter Trophy so that will be an extra motivation.

"They've got all the cards stacked on their side and they'll be one of the hardest teams to beat this year I believe, and they've worked really hard and will come flying at us. If we're not ready we'll get pumped," he said.

Kirwan said if they didn't feel league convert Benji Marshall was ready he wouldn't be starting. But that still hadn't been decided.

He reinforced the view that Marshall was regarded as a long term project so they were not hurrying him. He had been running more at fullback during the week than at first five-eighths, but that was partly due to the injury suffered by Charles Piutau, who suffered a burst blood vessel in his knee which had proved worse than earlier thought.

However, his situation would be clearer by the time of the team announcement on Thursday.

If Chris Noakes get the call to start at first five-eighths, Kirwan said he would be seeking more balance between attacking play and securing field position.

Like all the side, Noakes had started well last year but the job for him this year was to bring the balance the side requires. He was coming off an injury but he had come through contact training sessions and had gone hard during Tuesday's session.

While the Blues would again be without key players, hooker Keven Mealamu, prop Tony Woodcock, second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu, Tom Murday and the injured Culum Retallick, it was up to the younger players who were being given chances to put the pressure that Kirwan was hoping to build up on the others. There was also some doubt about halfback Jamison Gibson-Park.

Kirwan was confident with the preparation the team had enjoyed. They had some some things differently compared to his first year in the role and it would be important the Blues got out on the field to match what the Highlanders would be bringing to the game.

Kirwan said rather than feeling pressure he was loving the expectation for the side. He had grown up with it, had always played with it and had always had it as a coach and he thought that expectation was fantastic.