The Highlanders will be looking for consistency this
afternoon as the Super 15 season comes into full view.
The opening game is just a week away - against the Chiefs in
Dunedin - so the intensity is bound to be high this afternoon
in Queenstown as the Blues come to town.
Close to a full-strength Highlanders XV has been selected,
although there are clouds over a couple of All Blacks. Brad
Thorn and Ben Smith do not start due to injuries, while Lima
Sopoaga has a tight groin and is also not playing.
Sopoaga, who played impressively against the Crusaders last
week, has been replaced by Otago's Hayden Parker and, with
Colin Slade still unavailable, the Taieri man is the only fit
first five-eighth in the squad.
Thorn's calf tightened up at training on Wednesday. With the
first game only a week away, he is not being risked.
Smith has a sore toe and has been wearing a moon boot for the
past few days, although it is expected to come off today.
Smith did not play last week but Highlanders coach Jamie
Joseph was confident he would be right for next weekend.
''If I am reading Ben right, then he won't miss that game for
the world,'' Joseph said.
Nasi Manu and Chris King will make their first appearances of
the season - Manu is now over a hamstring strain and King is
coming off a shoulder operation.
The Highlanders have had a week in Wanaka with their families
- including no fewer than 42 children - and Joseph said
although it had been really enjoyable for everyone, the
training load had not diminished.
Coming off an impressive 38-21 win over the Crusaders in
Oamaru, Joseph said the side was looking for more of the same
''I would like to think it is not necessarily a step-up but
we can find some consistency, which is what we are trying to
achieve,'' he said.
''We need to be able to retain the ball, minimise our
mistakes, and give good quality ball to our backs who can do
something for us.
''We hope we improve. In these sort of games, it is not about
the score but more about us improving in the systems we are
trying to play.''
Against the Crusaders last week, the Highlanders made
progress on attack and looked sharp with the ball in hand.
The set piece, though, was a tad wobbly and needs to be more
Parker has a big chance and will benefit from having All
Blacks either side of him.
Josh Bekhuis should be jumping out of his skin with a start
and,e after an encouraging 50 minutes in Oamaru, John Hardie
continues his comeback.
Much has been made of the Blues' player departures from last
year but they can still put together a competitive side.
The forward pack has plenty of size while Francis Saili and
Rene Ranger will team up in an exciting-looking midfield.
Highlanders v Blues
Queenstown, today, 5.30pm
Highlanders: Buxton Popoali'i, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh,
Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear (captain), Hayden Parker, Aaron Smith,
Nasi Manu, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Jarrad Hoeata, Josh
Bekhuis, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Hugh Blake, Tim Boys, Liam Coltman, Tom Franklin,
Paul Grant, Chris King, Jamie Mackintosh, Bronson Murray,
Jason Emery, Fumiaki Tanaka, Shaun Treeby, Trent Renata, Frae
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger,
Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter
Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (captain),
Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom
McCartney. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa
Tu'ungafasi, Liaki Moli, Ronald Raaymakers, Sean Polwart,
Kane Barrett, Joe Edwards, Bryn Hall, Jackson Willison, Baden
Kerr, Marty McKenzie, Pita Ahki.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (Wellington).