Preview: Highlanders v Blues
The Blues have it all to play for as they travel to Dunedin to face the Highlanders, which could spell more trouble for the home side.
Sir John Kirwan's troops currently find themselves in seventh spot on the overall standings and with the Chiefs having all but wrapped up the New Zealand conference, it is only through the three extra play-off places that the Blues can qualify. A loss against the Highlanders will severely dent their prospects, with a two-match tour to South Africa followed by a rematch with the Chiefs to end off the round robin phase.
If there is one thing you know that you will get from the Blues it is a willingness to run the ball.
Despite coming out on the wrong side of a 20-13 result against the Brumbies last time out, the Blues managed seven more clean breaks than their opponents, beat 11 more defenders and made nine more offloads. Given such statistics it's no surprise that only the Chiefs (six) have more four-try bonus points than the Blues (five), but if they're going to go deep into the competition they need to provide a solid base from which they're exciting runners can attack and this starts at the set play.
Against the Brumbies the Blues only managed to win 77.8% of scrums on their own feed and 78.6% of line-outs on their own throw. Such dismal statistics don't inspire too much confidence in the Blues forwards.
Kirwan has shuffled his pack for the encounter, with James Parsons replacing Keven Mealamu at hooker, Anthony Boric coming in for Culum Retallick in the second row and flank Steven Luatua returning from injury. Whether these changes will provide the stability needed remains to be seen.
For the neutral this could prove quite the exciting clash as if there is one thing the Highlanders have done well this season it is run the ball from the back. Somehow Ben Smith has managed to be one of the tournament's shining lights despite his team's woeful form and Hosea Gear has hardly been a slouch either.
However, it's not the back three where the focus should lie for the Highlanders, but rather on the halfback pairing and in the front row.
Coach Jamie Joseph has made a decisive - and possibly crucial - move in dropping All Black scrum-half Aaron Smith from the starting line-up. Decision making has been a major stumbling block for the Highlanders and Smith has unfortunately been at the forefront in this area. Fumiaki Tanaka is the man to replace him, and it's a big task for the Japanese internatioanl, but one he'll feel he's up to.
It's an all-changed halfback pairing for the Highlanders, with Colin Slade restored to the number ten jersey. Slade looked much more impressive last week and he'll need to pull the strings this week but also ensure that his radar from the kicking tee is working.
Jamie Mackintosh comes into the front row and the experienced prop will, together with skipper Andrew Hore and number three Ma'afu Fia, ensure that the men from Otago have front foot ball from which to work with.
Prediction: The Highlanders run is unlikely to change. Blues by ten.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Trent Renata, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 TJ Ioane, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Ma'a Nonu.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Mart McKenzie, 22 Jackson Willison.
Date: Saturday June 1
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Jonathon White
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly, Kane McBride
Television match official: Keith Brown