Kia ora, good evening and welcome to Newshub’s live coverage of the Super Rugby Pacific clash between the Highlanders and Blues at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium.
After the season-opening boilover that saw the Chiefs trounce the champion Crusaders at Christchurch, all predictions have gone out the window, as the southerners try to topple last year’s beaten finalists at home.
These two rivals met in the 2022 quarter-finals, with the Blues prevailing 35-6, after winning their regular-season encounter 32-20.
Biggest talking point is recovery of Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava, who was believed sidelined for the season with a knee injury, but will line up as No.9 in the absence of All Blacks veteran Aaron Smith.
The Blues have 13 All Blacks in their starting XV – the exceptions are hooker Kurt Eklund and lock Cameron Suafoa – including their entire backline.
TAB Odds: Blues $1.33, Highlanders $3.40, draw $21
Highlanders: 1-Ethan de Groot, 2-Rhys Marshall, 3-Jermaine Ainsley, 4-Pari Pari Parkinson, 5-Josh Dickson, 6-Shannon Frizell, 7-Billy Harmon (capt), 8-Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 9-Folau Fakatava, 10-Mitch Hunt, 11-Jona Nareki, 12-Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 13-Josh Timu, 14-Jonah Lowe, 15-Sam Gilbert
Reserves: 16-Andrew Makalio, 17-Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18-Saula Mau, 19-Will Tucker, 20-Sean Withy, 21-Kemara-Hauiti Parapara, 22-Freddie Burns, 23-Connor Garden-Bachop
Blues: 1-Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2-Kurt Eklund, 3-Nepo Laulala, 4-Patrick Tuipulotu, 5-Cameron Suafoa, 6-Akira Ioane, 7-Dalton Papali’i (capt), 8-Hoskins Sotutu, 9-Finlay Christie, 10-Beauden Barrett, 11-Caleb Clarke, 12-Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 13-Rieko Ioane, 14-Mark Telea, 15-Stephen Perofeta
Reserves: 16-Ricky Riccitelli, 17-Joshua Fusitu’a, 18-Marcel Renata, 19-James Tucker, 20-Adrian Choat, 21-Taufa Funaki, 22-Bryce Heem, 23-AJ Lam
All Black de Groot’s off-season sacrifice pays off as Super Rugby looms
After finishing 2022 as part of the All Blacks’ first-choice front row, Ethan de Groot is desperate to stay there and avoid a repeat of a slow start to Super Rugby, when the Highlanders kick off their season on Saturday.
To help with that, de Groot has bypassed the All Blacks rest protocols over summer, instead returning to pre-season training in early December – two months before he was required to.
“It was hard,” he told Newshub. “I’ve never had so much time off and last year, I got told to stay away and have a break.
“I fell behind from round one last year.”
That slow start proved costly and de Groot was left out of the All Blacks squad for the series defeat to Ireland, but his omission proved a blessing in disguise.
De Groot’s comeback was an imposing one and the 24-year-old is now firmly the first-choice loosehead prop.
“I feel like I’m in a better spot now and way fitter than what I was last year.
“Last year, I was 135kg and ran a 5m 50s bronco,” he continued. “Now, I’m 128kg and my bronco was 5m 14s.”
At the heart of de Groot’s resurgence were the sweeping changes made to the All Blacks coaching group in July. The front-rower is full of praise for the addition of Jason Ryan, whom he feels has transformed the way he plays.
“He took my game to a different level, around his style of coaching,” said de Groot. “He’s definitely a coach you really want to work hard for.”
De Groot is ready to put in even more hard work this year, starting against the Blues on Saturday.