Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody was in no doubt about the job ahead of his side. Coach Leon MacDonald has completely refreshed his starting line-up for the Blues’ quarter-final derby with the Highlanders this weekend.
“It is one versus eight, and they have won 13 games in a row, so I’m pretty confident we can take the underdog’s tag. It is going to be a hell of an ask,” he said.
“We understand how good they are. They are the top seed for a reason, and earned everything they’ve got through how they played.
“We understand them pretty well, we’ve played them twice this year.
“We’ve played them a few times over the last few seasons and done well…well-ish. We didn’t beat them this year but were in games for a long time so we can take heart out of that but we’re aware of how hard it is going to be,” he said.
Scrummaging was a concern ahead of the game. The Highlanders were disappointed with some aspects of the scrum against the Rebels. They understood the Blues’ scrum would be completely different.
“They’ll be a threat at scrum time, but we’ll be looking to do everything we can to push them around a bit,” he said.
Dermody didn’t think the players rested by the Blues for their final pool game against the Waratahs would suffer because of the break. He said if any of his Highlanders players were offered a rest at that stage, they would have taken it.
Those players concerned were top professionals, experienced Super Rugby players and would be ready to go at the weekend, he said.
The fact it was a one-off, knockout game was a point in the Highlanders’ favour.
“We know we haven’t played our best rugby, hopefully that’s in front of us and hopefully it’s this weekend,” he said.
“We’re going to pick our best team and go up and give it a good crack,” he said.
Shannon Frizell will be available after recovering from injury and playing club rugby at the weekend. That could be timely given James Lentjes was feeling the effects of a shoulder injury from the Rebels game on Sunday.
Frizell had done his rehabilitation well, but it would be challenge going from a club game for Taieri into a quarterfinal against the Blues, Dermody said.
The Highlanders vs Blues have squared off twice already this season with the Blues winning both games – although just seven points separated the two sides in their last encounter.
Saturday’s match will kick off at 7:05pm NZT from Eden Park in Auckland.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Bryce Heem, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett, Finlay Christie, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, James Tucker, Ofa Tuungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman.
Reserves: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Luke Romano, Adrian Choat, Sam Nock, AJ Lam, Zarn Sullivan.
BLUES vs HIGHLANDERS, Saturday 5.05pm AEST in Auckland
The Blues have predictably recalled their big guns – including Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Beauden Barrett – after resting them for last weekend’s win over the Waratahs in Sydney.
With Caleb Clarke out injured, Mark Telea will start on the left wing and veteran Bryce Heem on the right.
BRUMBIES vs HURRICANES, Saturday 7.45pm AEST in Canberra
The Brumbies will again be without star flanker Rob Valetini for Saturday’s home quarter final as the Canberra club announced the impending departure of four stars.
Valetini remains sidelined with a knee injury while the Brumbies confirmed Scott Sio, Tom Banks, Folau Fainga’a and Irae Simone will leave the club at the end of the season.