Super Rugby: The Highlanders host Auckland Blues in Dunedin
Last Updated: 20/02/14 5:07pm
The Highlanders open their 2014 Super Rugby campaign against Northern rivals the Blues of Auckland at home in Dunedin.
Jamie Joseph's side, often seen as perennial strugglers, boast a surprisingly healthy record against the Blues, winning three of the previous five meetings between the sides.
However, in the 22 encounters between the sides since 1996, the Highlanders have managed just eight wins, while the sides have never drawn.
Sir John Kirwan's side have not enjoyed their recent visits to the Fosyth Barr Stadium, losing on the last two occasions by seven points or more.
After finishing bottom of the New Zealand conference last term, registering only three wins from their 16 matches, Joseph will be eager to see his side lay a strong opener marker against the Blues, who themselves could only muster six wins in the previous campaign.
During the close season there have been plenty of changes for both sides and Joseph's starting XV boasts six Highlanders debutants, raising concerns over their stability and experience.
Kane Hames, Gareth Evans, Shane Christie, Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa and Richard Buckman all don the Highlanders jersey for the first time; with Hames, Evans and Fekitoa also be making their Super Rugby debuts.
Among the replacements Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz and Craig Millar will all make their debuts should they be called upon.
Kirwan's headline signing of the summer, Benji Marshall, is named on the replacements bench this weekend's season opener but is expected to feature in the second half.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi makes his first Blues start at loosehead prop, while Patrick Tuipulotu and Tevita Li could make their Super Rugby debuts.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (capt), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 1 Kane Hames, 2 Liam Coltman, 3 Chris King, 4 Brad Thorn, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 6 Gareth Evans, 7 Shane Christie, 8 Nasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 1 Ofa Tu 'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 4 Liaki Moli, 5 Tom Donnelly, 6 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid, 8 Peter Saili.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta 'avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O 'Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li.