Auckland Blues Diary - Game Tahi vs Highlanders Preview

Haere mai Male Sa'u, here's a starting spot.

Haere mai Male Sa'u, here's a starting spot.

Week one and time to finally see what all the fuss is about. The Tana Umaga era begins with a tough ol' fixture against the defending champs, but if we were taking into account historical events, well there'd be no hope for the Blues would there? The Auckland Blues are here to dominate and shock the Super Rugby competition.

Well, dominate and ease into their Super Rugby campaign. This isn't the best Blues team that I can think of, but Umaga obviously has a plan that he's sticking to and I interpret that plan to revolve around growth and development. Start slow and build things up ya know?

Compared to the Otago Highlanders' backline - which includes Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith - the Blues' backline looks raw. Lolagi Visina, Melani Nanai and Tevita Li start as the back three and they are all exciting but young players while Japanese international Male Sa'u joins George Moala in the midfield. Ihaia West and Bryn Hall round things off at first-five and halfback.

Rene Ranger sits on the bench for this one, I suspect he and Matt McGahan are the most likely backs to see game off the bench.

Plenty of strike-power, although you could argue that Visinia, Nanai, Sa'u, Moala and Li all offer a fairly similar skill-set. Compared to the subtlety and nous of the Highlanders backline, which leaves me a bit worried.

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Two blokes who I'm eager to see are Li and West. Li has had plenty of noise around him since he was a teenager and he's now starting round one, the Blues need Li to be a breakout star and this is our first opportunity to see if he can. 

West is obviously a crucial figure in this backline as he's the only bloke who can really control and organise things.  Let's be frank - West will be the key man each week that he's starting at first-five, don't sleep on the pressure coming from McGahan though either.

The Highlanders have named a workman like forward pack and one could see this as an opportunity for the Blues to gain an advantage around the park. I'm not convinced and see that workman-like nature of the Highlanders' forwards as a strength, it's something that I wish the Blues had.

Steven Luatua starts at the back of the scrum, joined in the loose by youngsters Blake Gibson and Joe Edwards after Jerome Kaino did his best Joseph Parker impersonation last week. Josh Bekhuis and Patrick Tuipulotu are our locks while another youngster Sione Mafileo gets a start in the front-row alongside skipper James Parsons and Ofa Tu'ungafasi.

It feels like every season is a big season for Luatua after he burst into All Blacks contention and with the No.8 on his back, it will be interesting to see how he handles the extra responsibility of leading the Blues' physical presence up the guts. Luatua is suddenly a leader as well with Kaino out and he's going to be the wise head of this loose-forward trio, which isn't ideal.

The Blues have weapons a plenty in their backline but as we all know, that counts for nothing if they can't keep their own ball at the breakdown and win the odd bit of HIghlanders ball. Gibson and Edwards are both talented young loosies, how they go against the likes of Elliot Dixon and Shane Christie will be a key point to watch. Dixon and Christie are good without being amazing, which leaves the door open for Gibson and Edwards to make a bit of a statement. You'd have to bet on Dixon and Christie just doing their job though. 

Charlie Faumuina joins Ranger on the bench, which kinda sums up this game for me right now (Friday morning). I'm excited without being overly positive about the Blues' chances, but more importantly for me, this game is a small detail in a bigger plan.

The word 'journey' brings a shive to kiwi rugby fans, however I'm going to revive the journey concept here. This Blues side is on one rather large journey, led by a smart operator in Umaga and with a young squad learning their craft. 

Instead of winning, which would see expectations soar through the roof, I'm happy for the Highlanders to touch us up here. I just need a few positive signs and I'll be happy. 

This journey isn't a sprint, which is nice because the Blues certainly don't have any sprinters who can sustain that pace long enough to send waves through this competition.