Rugby Union: Highlands can edge must-win encounter

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RUGBY betting analyst Christian Murray (@wncomwncobutt) returns with his best bet from Saturday's morning's Super Rugby action.

Highlanders v Blues | Saturday 20th April 2019, 08:35 | Sky Sports

We are into the second half of this year’s Super Rugby campaign and, already for some, the chances of making the play-offs are getting slimmer. One such team will be in action on Saturday in Dunedin against the in-form Blues. Lose for a second consecutive home game at the Forsyth Barr Stadium (something they’ve not done since 2013) and the Highlanders’ season is effectively over.

A win here however and the hosts put themselves firmly back in the play-off mix. They may currently prop up the New Zealand conference but with easier fixtures remaining in comparison to the Chiefs and Blues (they only play New Zealand opposition once more in the last seven weeks) it can’t have escaped current coach Aaron Mauger’s thinking that a victory could re-ignite their campaign.

But it isn’t going to be easy against a Blues team who are playing some good rugby at the moment and have already beaten the Highlanders in Week 6 in Auckland. That was a close game and one that has pretty much summed up the Highlanders season; a game in which they deservedly led but ultimately lost due to missed opportunities and costly errors.

Waisake Naholo’s yellow card, infringements at the ruck and problems at scrum time all went against the Highlanders. The Blues, who had a far superior bench to call upon later in the game, had a big impact also

Frustrating Highlanders campaign

It has been a case of so close but yet so far for the Highlanders; they should have won several of their opening games if they had capitalised on key moments. Mauger went on record in the week to say the team have been guilty of hurting themselves through poor decisions, making a lot of line breaks but not quite capitalising.

Look at last week against the Crusaders for example, even though they lead at half time 17-10, there was a general feeling amongst the commentators that it should have been more. They made double the line breaks to the Crusaders, but not converting their chances in that first half and building a bigger lead when they were on top ultimately cost them. The final score flattered the Crusaders.

Mauger has alluded that the players understand the importance of this game in context to the rest of the season and know it’s a must win. There is a lot of internal motivation and the players are committed to putting in a good performance, God knows Mauger deserves one.

He’s also stated that by putting themselves under more stress during their preparation this week, he believes that they have put themselves in a good position to go out and execute their game plan more satisfactorily on Saturday.

His and his team’s confidence will also have been boosted by the return of the key All-Black stars Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock. There may have been a temptation to start the pair but it’s clear from the stats that the Highlanders have been starting games well no matter who they put out – they are second behind the Crusaders in scoring more and conceding less in the first 50 minutes of matches.

It’s been controlling and seeing out the business end of matches where the Highlanders have struggled, so having a stronger bench and being able to call upon their experience at the back end of the game will be critical. This will be a role reversal of the first game if it comes off.

Blues lacking stamina?

The Blues have improved immensely under the guidance of head coach Leon MacDonald this season and were involved in the match of this Super Rugby season so far last time out against the Chiefs. However, the age old issue of Blues’ players fitness came in question again last week which I felt cost them the game.

MacDonald has implemented a similar attacking system he used at the Tasman Mako’s, which whilst very effective, it does require fit and mobile forwards with a certain level of ball playing ability. Some of the Blues eight fill some of the criteria but lack in others.

One of those areas in question is fitness and some of the forwards are failing the system with their work rate. They had an astounding 63% possession against the Chiefs but failed to outscore them, a lot of that was due to some forwards getting tired around the 55-minute mark which impacted on the Blues being able to keep their attacking shape.

The Blues have had four consecutive high intensity and physically demanding games in which key forwards like Tom Robinson, Akira Ioane, Patrick Tuipulotu, James Parsons and Dalton Papli’I have seen a lot of game time. They showed signs of fatigue last week and they could again against the Highlanders.

The betting angle

If you also consider that the Blues haven’t beaten another New Zealand franchise away since Round 2 in 2013 and the Highlanders have won the previous six matches these two in Dunedin since 2011, then for me it’s a Highlanders win.

Although as per the previous battle it will be close. In fact, looking at the results, excluding matches against the Crusaders, all games between the other New Zealand conference teams have been decided by seven points or less so I’m looking at the Highlanders to win by 1-12 points at 2/1 with Betfair.

Best Bets

Highlanders v Blues – Highlanders to win by 1-12 (2/1 Betfair)

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