Super Rugby: Highlanders bulk up to face massive Blues at Eden Park

The Highlanders have called on the services of Liam Coltman, tough loose forward Hugh Renton and a bulked-up James Lentjes to withstand the Blues early physical assault at Eden Park on Sunday.
Coach Tony Brown has revealed that Lentjes, who has not played Super Rugby since a horror injury in February 2020, packed on some extra muscle during his long rehabilitation and now weighs in at more than 110kg.

It's great to have Jimmy back at No 7, Brown said.

It's obviously been over a year since he's had a game at this level and he's really keen to do well, and he's a bit bigger last year, so we're looking for quite a bit of physicality early on.

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Lentjes scored two maul tries against the Hurricanes in the Highlanders final preseason hitout last month and has clearly being hitting the weights during the past 12 months.

With the absent Liam Squire being managed in the early part of the season, it will be up to Lentjes and Renton to bring the edge against an enormous Blues pack that assistant coach Clarke Dermody compared to a South African side.

I think he's had a year to rehab, a year of training, so hes got in there and put a bit of extra muscle on just to prepare his body as best he could, Brown said.

He's over 110kg at the moment and he used to be well under.

The size theme continues in the backline, where Ngantungane Punivai moves to the right wing to mark the Blues Caleb Clarke, while the 95kg Connor Garden-Bachop takes over the No 15 jersey from Mitch Hunt.

Kerry Marshall/Getty Images
Aaron Smith came off the bench for the Highlanders against the Chiefs last week.

That means a recall at centre for Michael Collins against his former side.

Brharapg Mike in and putting Ngane Punivai to the wing allows us to have a bit more physical presence out in the width," Brown said.

Connor has played pretty well in the past two weeks so we're looking forward to a big performance at fullback.

Garden-Bachop's performance in the No 15 jersey will be critical, with Scott Gregory's tough night at the office against the Blues at Eden Park last year still a painful memory for Highlanders fans.

Highlanders midfielder Sio Tomkinson reveals his desire to play for Samoa.

The Blues capitalised on a number of Gregory errors as they shot out to a handy lead the Highlanders couldnt quite claw back, despite a second-half comeback.

However, Gregory looks far more at ease in the midfield than fullback while Garden-Bachop has made it clear that No 15 is his preferred position.

If his nails his work under the high ball, the Highlanders will be hoping he can provide the spark from the back as they try to play the game at pace.

To that end, Brown has reinstated All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith at No 9 after his bench role last week.

Backup halfback Folau Fakatava was strong in his 50 minutes against the Chiefs in Hamilton, scoring a nice try and defending bravely, but there is no doubt that Smiths distribution and speed to the ruck remains the best in the country.

Joe Allison
James Lentjes is finally back in Super Rugby after recovering from last year's horror injury.

Tighthead prop Jeff Thwaites also said the Highlanders coaches had asked the players to check their attitudes" after slow starts against both the Crusaders in round one and the Chiefs in Hamilton.

We talked a lot about our start and how we come out of the sheds and be a bit more clinical around our first actions, especially in the first 20 minutes, Thwaites said.

It was just about checking your attitude and doing your job a lot better. It came down to individuals having that attitude to nail your role.

Itll be an awesome opportunity and a huge test for us [against the Blues]. We've just got to go to work and give it everything.

The Blues beat the Highlanders twice last year to take possession of the prized Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy.

Joe Allison/Getty Images
Tighthead prop Jeff Thwaites faces a big challenge against the All Blacks-laden Blues pack.

Sunday's game kicks off at 3.35pm and will be played in front of a crowd Eden Park after Aucklands move to Covid-19 alert level 1 at noon on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Highlanders have named a strong Bravehearts side to face the Crusaders Development XV on Saturday.

Pari Pari Parkinson, Ayden Johnstone, Kazuki Himeno, Solomon Alaimalo and Nehe Milner-Skudder will all start, with Parkinson and Johnstone returning from long spells out with injury.


What: Super Rugby Aotearoa, round 3

Who: Blues v Highlanders

When: Sunday, 3.35pm, Eden Park, Auckland

Highlanders: Connor Garden-Bachop, Ngantungane Punivai, Michael Collins, Sio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith (cc), Hugh Renton, James Lentjes, Shannon Frizell, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Josh Dickson, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Ethan de Groot.

Reserves: Ash Dixon (cc), Josh Hohneck, Jeff Thwaites, Bryn Evans, Marino Mikaele Tuu, Folau Fakatava, Mitch Hunt, Billy Harmon.

Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Harry Plummer, Caleb Clarke, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru; Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Sam Darry, Patrick Tuipulotu (capt), Ofa Tuungafasi, Luteru Tolai, Karl Tuinukuafe.

Reserves: Kurt Eklund, James Lay, Nepo Laulala, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Tom Robinson, Sam Nock, Tanielu Telea, Emoni Narawa.

TAB odds: Blues $1.37 Highlanders $2.90


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