Preview: Blues v Highlanders
Round Eight begins with an intriguing meeting at Eden Park in Auckland as the Blues host a Highlanders outfit that remains winless in Super Rugby.
If asked which team in New Zealand would be the most likely to possess an 0 from 5 record then the majority would undoubtedly have said the Blues.
However it is in fact the star-studded Highlanders sitting at the foot of the conference, 19 points off the Chiefs and 11 from the fifth-placed Blues.
That places extra emphasis on this being a must-win for the men from Dunedin as they know that lose and they are not just adrift but out of sight in terms of getting off the bottom. For reference, the fourth-place side in New Zealand, the Hurricanes, host the 'Tahs and are expected to win that one.
A painful 33-34 defeat against the Reds was their most recent loss to the 2013 tally as we wrongly predicted that was to finally be the end of their rot.
Now, is this Friday going to see us plump for the Highlanders once again? Well they don't have a better time to face the Blues if we are to look at form. The Blues have lost three on the bounce as their early-season victories have been dampened by recent defeats to the Bulls, Waratahs and pace-setting Chiefs.
Sir John Kirwan is boosted by the return of Keven Mealamu to his matchday squad - after an extended break - in a side that shows two changes. Tasman loosehead Tim Perry will start in place of Tom McCartney, while Jackson Willison replaces Francis Saili at inside centre. The latter move is a wise decision by Kirwan as despite Saili's obvious talent, he needs to be managed during his early career. In Willison they have an impressive replacement.
The Highlanders meanwhile have gone into the market to bring in former Crusaders number eight Mose Tuiali'i. Tuiali'i's arrival from Japan cushions the continued absence of Nasi Manu as Elliot Dixon this week moves on to the bench. They remain without one of their danger men, Kade Poki, due to injury so Buxton Popoali'i continues at right wing.
It promises to be an open spectacle at Eden Park so we expect to see plenty of running opportunities for Rene Ranger, Hosea Gear, Charle Piutau and Ben Smith. Picking a winner though is a tough call as both sides will be hoping to stop their respective poor runs of form. Unfortunately for Highlanders fans, it could well be another close game to test the nerves.
Super head-to-head: The scrum-half battle has quite a bit riding on it as Aaron Smith has yet to recapture his 2012 form and goes up against All Black team-mate Piri Weepu. Weepu was exceptional in the early rounds with his decision making leading to the Blues starting the season well. No doubt Steve Hansen will be watching this one so it's a big opportunity for both to say they are the number one number nine in New Zealand.
Prediction: We go for the Blues by 1-5 points!
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Francis Saili.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoalii, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ma'afu Fia, 18 TJ Ioane, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Phil Burleigh.
Date: Friday, April 5
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 (07:35 BST, 06:35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)