Highlanders ready for breakdown battle

QUALITY SIGNING: Ma'a Nonu will make his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders against the Chiefs.
QUALITY SIGNING: Ma'a Nonu will make his Super Rugby debut for the Highlanders against the Chiefs.

The Highlanders are wary of a talented Chiefs loose forward trio in tonight's season opener in Dunedin.

Super Rugby's defending champion will field All Blacks Sam Cane and Liam Messam on either side of the scrum, with Tanerau Latimer offering quality off the bench in the battle for the breakdown.

It's an area where the Highlanders got beaten up badly when the two teams met in Taupo during the preseason, and one that coach Jamie Joseph will be anxious to at least gain parity in.

The Highlanders will field a totally different loose forward unit than the one they used in that trial game, with Tim Boys, Jarrad Hoeata and Elliot Dixon making way for John Hardie, Joe Wheeler and Nasi Manu.

"We've addressed that [area] firstly with selection and then we've been working really hard since that match to make sure it doesn't happen again," Joseph said.

"The contest at the breakdown is always a fierce one and I guess my experience with this team the last two years, they'll front when they need to."

Hardie and Manu have only recently returned to the fray after surgery and injury, while Joe Wheeler has grabbed his chance at a blindside role despite being originally selected as a lock.

Quality ball is important for any rugby team, but it's something the Highlanders will be desperate for as they look to make the most of Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga's running games.

The scrap between opposing nine-10 combinations looks a treat, with All Blacks Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow lining up for the Chiefs.

With a backline which features Hosea Gear, who has scored five tries in his last three outings, Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith, the Highlanders are eager to fire a few shots under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium after struggling to score tries last season.

Their cause was not helped by the loss of Brad Thorn during the week to a niggling calf strain, something which robs the forwards of experience and power, but Joseph does have a useful combination in Hoeata and Josh Bekhuis to fall back on.

There will be pressure on the duo to secure sharp lineout possession after that set piece looked wayward in trial games against the Crusaders and Blues.

With All Black hooker Andrew Hore sitting out the final game of a four-match suspension, the focus falls on Brayden Mitchell and Liam Coltman to get their throwing right.

"If I take away a couple of inaccurate throws from the hookers we are probably talking about not much," Joseph said.

"Both Brayden and Liam are working really hard - big shoes to fill . . . [tonight's] a big game for them and they are both going to have to execute accurately, and I'm confident they can do that."

The atmosphere for tonight's game is expected to be intense, with the students returning to Otago University and more than 17,000 tickets pre-sold yesterday.

It's part of a big sporting weekend at the stadium, with NRL teams the Warriors and Broncos playing the same venue tomorrow.

Highlanders: Ben Smith, Kade Poki, Phil Burleigh, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear (capt), Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu, John Hardie, Joe Wheeler, Josh Bekhuis, Jarrad Hoeata, Ma'afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Liam Coltman, Bronson Murray, Elliot Dixon, Tim Boys, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Buxton Popoali'i.

Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Patrick Osborne, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (capt), Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Charlie Ngatai, Lelia Masaga.

Officials: Steve Walsh, ARs Mike Fraser and Kane McBride, Vinny Munro TMO.

TAB odds: Highlanders $1.67, Chiefs $2.10.

The Southland Times