Rugby: Highlanders again looking to improve

Jamie Joseph
Jamie Joseph
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Sopoaga, who played impressively against the Crusaders last week, has been replaced by Otago's Hayden Parker and, with Colin Slade still unavailable, the Taieri man is the only fit first five-eighth in the squad.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 today.

''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 precise.

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 Wilson.

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).


Don't forget Trent

I think you are forgetting Trent Renata who is a First-five/Fullback utility similar to Colin Slade.

He is also a very handy goal kicker.

So yeah Hayden isn't the only fully fit first five in the squad.