The Highlanders know what they are going to get when they square off against the Blues at Eden Park on Sunday.
The Auckland franchise have an enormous forward pack capable of powering their way to victory, and their opponents this weekend have been vocal about that threat the hosts pose.
Earlier this week, Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody compared the Blues’ forwards to that of a South African pack as an indication of how big they are.
“It’s like preparing for a South African team without the South Africans in the competition,” he said on Wednesday.
“They’re a massive pack, [they do] a lot of kicking. Our challenge is to match them up-front and not get drawn into that game. They want to be walking from set-piece to set-piece, so we’ll try to speed the game up.”
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown reciprocated Dermody’s assertions on Friday in the wake of his team announcement, which has seen seven new players come into the starting lineup.
Of those seven, one could play a particularly important role in matching the Blues in terms of physicality and size.
That player, James Lentjes, has also become somewhat of a forgotten figure for those outside of the Highlanders environment, given he has been absent for little more than a year now after suffering a horror leg and ankle injury against the Rebels last February.
He has recovered fully, though, and is primed to make his first appearance in a competition match – he scored a brace off the bench in a pre-season clash against the Hurricanes – since that fixture.
In doing so, he replaces new Crusaders recruit Billy Harmon, who has demoted to the bench, but Lentjes brings with him extra size that could be crucial to combatting the brute force the Blues are expected to enforce on the Highlanders.
“Obviously it’s been over a year since he’s had a game at this level, so he’s really keen. He’s trained really well. He’s a bit bigger than last year, so we’re looking for a bit of physicality early on,” Brown said.
“He just had a year to rehab and a year of training, so he got in there and got a bit of extra muscle on, just to prepare his body as best he could.”
The Highlanders have chopped and changed from their side that defeated the Chiefs in Hamilton last Friday for their clash against the Blues in Auckland on Sunday.https://t.co/0D5g0GtM4e
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 12, 2021
That extra muscle has seen Lentjes bulk up to over 110kg, which should allow him to pack more of a punch in the collision zone.
Likewise, the positional switch of Connor Garden-Bachop to fullback and Ngatungane Punivai to the wing to allow Michael Collins into the midfield should give the Highlanders an extra physical edge out wide.
“I just think bringing Mike in and moving Ngane Punivai to the wing allows us to be a bit more of a physical presence out in the width. Connor’s played pretty well the last two weeks so looking forward to a big performance at fullback,” Brown said.
However, Brown hinted he wants his side to steer away from the contact zone as a method of running the Blues’ big men off the park.
“They’re a very physical side. They like the game slow and lots of set pieces, lots of kicking game, so we need to speed the game up and take them on that way.”
Swapping the boots for the microphone ??https://t.co/i6LDt9ITYh
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 11, 2021
Elsewhere, eight-test All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman has come into the starting side for the first time this season at the expense of co-captain Ash Dixon, while Manaaki Selby-Rickit starts at lock in place of Irish second rower Jack Regan.
“Just an opportunity to give Colty a start at hooker. Ash has had a big workload so far, so getting Colty in there, fresh legs, is going to be important at the start of the game,” Brown said.
“Bringing Manaaki in as well at lock. Taking a bit of heat off Jack Regan. He’s done a great job for us, but time for Manaaki to get an opportunity and see what he can deliver.”
As for Liam Squire, the returning All Blacks loose forward who has featured off the bench in the first two Highlanders matches this year, Brown said his absence from the match day side came down to managing his game time after a year with minimal action.
“We’re just managing Liam. We’ve always had a plan to manage him through the early part of the season. Pretty happy with how he’s going. Just an opportunity to bring Jimmy in and to give Liam a little bit of a rest.”
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