With six debutants in their starting XV and an exodus of big names behind them, the Highlanders open up at home to the Blues.
It’s safe to say little is expected of Jamie Joseph’s men. The Dunedin-based franchise finished 14th last season and that was with the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Colin Slade.
They are now all gone, but the Highlanders can’t do that much worse without them than they did with all those All Blacks in supply last season and yet still propping up the table. Joseph has flipped the ethos from one focused on the big names to a tightly-bound squad, whose confidence and unity has been built up through a tough pre-season.
Siege mentalities have often worked and there’s no reason why it couldn’t for the Highlanders, but for now they just need to learn how to play together.Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Osborne all make their debuts in the backs while Shane Christie, Gareth Evans and Kane Hames are all making their bow in the pack.
Still, the Highlanders have standout players in key positions. Ben Smith would have certainly been last year’s IRB Player of the Year had it not been for Kieran Read. Aaron Smith turned a tough year in Super Rugby on its head with a strong run of form during The Rugby Championship.
The pack isn’t short of strong carriers either, with Nasi Manu, Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn, while Liam Coltman could be the next great All Black hooker. So there is some hope. Sadly, the Highlanders will need more than that. Their defence last season was porous and that will be an area of major concern, conceding 55 tries.
The Blues meanwhile travel to the Forsyth Barr Stadium with a star-studded backline, but no Benji Marshall. The former NRL star has to settle for a bench spot with Chris Noakes running the ship from fly-half, partnered at half-back by Piri Weepu.
It’s not so long ago that the Blues were down the bottom end of the log and weren’t receiving any praise, but a season under John Kirwan has changed the perspective. The gap seemingly has closed between the Blues and New Zealand’s best in the Crusaders and Chiefs.
If the pack can provide the platform, where Tom Donnelly is an astute signing and Steven Luatua enjoyed a breakthrough year with the All Blacks, then the likes of Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili and George Moala will all run riot. Those four make this game worth watching on their own.
Marshall will no doubt get a cameo at some stage, whether at fly-half or full-back, with Kirwan cautious enough not to throw him in too early. It comes down to whether the Highlanders can stop the Blues’ pack laying the foundations. Do that and they have a chance, but otherwise the Blues could run riot and this will get ugly.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Liam Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diáz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O’Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li
Date: Saturday, February 22
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kickoff: 19:35 (local, 04:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)