There’s plenty to play for at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Sunday @ 05:35 SA Time, with the long-standing Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy up for grabs along with the chance for both sides to stay in the Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa title race. Both teams are coming into this game hot. The Highlanders will be refreshed from a bye but also still on a high from their remarkable comeback win over the Chiefs in round six. After trailing 24-0 at one stage, the Highlanders stormed back to claim a 33-31 victory on the buzzer. The Blues win last week against the Chiefs wasn’t as dramatic but was equally hard-fought as they held on for a 21-17 win over Warren Gatland’s charges.
The Blues are currently second on the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition's log after four wins from six games. The Highlanders are currently second from the bottom on the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition log with two wins from five. The Blues beat the Highlanders 27-24 in week three of the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
The Blues have named an unchanged squad to head south for their Investec Super Rugby Aotearoa game against the Highlanders.
The only change is a swap in the front row where All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, fully recovered from a niggling hamstring, has his first start in this competition while hard-working Alex Hodgman will come off the bench after six straight starts.
While the Blues share top-of-the-table status on four wins with the Crusaders and Hurricanes, the firm focus is on bringing the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy back to Auckland.
The trophy was established in memory of the late Gordon Hunter, coach of both the Highlanders and the Blues, who he guided in 2000 and 2001. It has been won on eight occasions by the Blues and 10 times by the Highlanders who have had possession for the past eight years. The challenger can only win the trophy at the home of the holder.
“Gordon was a special man who held a special place for both the Blues and the Highlanders, something we are well aware of,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“We would like nothing more than to take the trophy back to Auckland with us.
“We know that we will need to be at our best to achieve that. Every time we play the Highlanders it is a close affair, as are all the games in this competition.
“We have worked hard again this week and focussed on being more accurate and disciplined at the breakdown but at the same time, we want to continue to be physical in the collisions.
“We have to get the job done upfront and give our backs the time and space to show their skills, be both patients as well as capitalise on our chances.”
The Blues are looking forward to playing under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium with the surface suiting their open running style.
MacDonald said that Tu’inukuafe had earned a start with an eye-catching effort off the bench last week and offers a chance for Hodgman to freshen up after some big minutes in this campaign.
The backline is unchanged with Beauden Barrett again at first-five, the exciting three-quarters in Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea have 15 tries between them, and dual international Matt Duffie again at fullback, one of eight Blues starters with more than 50 Super caps to their credit.
MacDonald is looking for a positive and powerful input from the bench later in the game.
Blues: 15. Matt Duffie, 14. Mark Telea, 13. Rieko Ioane, 12. TJ Faiane, 11. Caleb Clarke, 10. Beauden Barrett, 9. Finlay Christie; 8. Akira Ioane, 7. Blake Gibson, 6. Dalton Papalii, 5. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu ©, 3. Ofa Tuungafasi, 2. Kurt Eklund, 1. Karl Tu’inukuafe. Replacements: 16. Luteru Tolai, 17. Alex Hodgman, 18. Sione Mafileo, 19. Josh Goodhue, 20. Tony Lamborn, 21. Sam Nock, 22. Otere Black, 23. Harry Plummer.
Bryn Gatland is the only new player included in the matchday 23 of the Highlanders but a key positional change will see All Black first-five, Josh Ioane, get his first start of the new season in the driving seat. The well-performed Mitch Hunt will move to fullback but will no doubt have some time at flyhalf.
“Mitch has been outstanding for us and has really flourished with regular game time. We are truly blessed with the standard of flyhalves we have in our squad and I would be confident with any of the three of them at the helm. Josh deserves his chance though as he has worked very hard to get back to full fitness and we saw some nice touches from him against the Chiefs,” said Mauger.
Michael Collins has retained the centre spot having performed well against the Chiefs in that position, “Michael has been in good form, making good decisions and we believe he can make a real impact on the game from there”.
Highlanders: 1. Ayden Johnstone, 2. Ash Dixon (cc), 3. Jeff Thwaites, 4. Pari Pari Parkinson, 5. Jack Whetton, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. Dillon Hunt, 8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 9. Aaron Smith (cc), 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Scott Gregory, 12. Patelesio Tomkinson, 13. Michael Collins, 14. Josh McKay, 15. Mitch Hunt. Replacements: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Ethan De Groot, 18. Siate Tokolahi, 19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20. Jesse Parete, 21. Folau Fakatava, 22. Bryn Gatland, 23. Jona Nareki.
The Blues have won two of their last three Super Rugby games against the Highlanders, including a 27-24 win when they last met in Round 3 of Super Rugby Aotearoa. They will be hunting for back-to-back wins against them for the first time since 2011.
The Highlanders have won their last seven home games on the bounce against the Blues in Super Rugby; although, those victories have come by an average margin of just seven points per game.
The Blues have won only three of their last 35 away games against fellow New Zealand opponents in Super Rugby (L32), losing their last two on the bounce.
The Highlanders have combined for 20+ defenders beaten in each of their last three Super Rugby games, after having done so only once in their eight games prior. However, they’ve managed to reach 20+ defenders beaten in only one of their last 12 games against the Blues.
Blues’ duo Akira Ioane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi have each made 56 tackles from 58 attempts in Super Rugby Aotearoa for a success rate of 97% - higher than any other player to have attempted at least 40 tackles.