Highlanders name strong side to face Blues in Super Rugby opener




Teihorangi Walden has won the vacant midfield starting spot in a Highlanders team that is close to full-strength for their season-opening match against the Blues.

Highlanders captain Ben Smith in action during the Super Rugby match between Hurricanes v Highlanders, Westpac Stadium, Saturday 18th March 2017. Copyright Photo: Raghavan Venugopal / www.photosport.nz

Highlanders captain Ben Smith in action against the Hurricanes.

Source: Photosport

Walden will start outside All Blacks first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga in Dunedin on Friday, with Rob Thompson shifting out to centre in place of the injured Richard Buckman (neck).

Proven and versatile back Matt Faddes misses a starting spot and takes his place on the bench.

The midfield shuffle is the only change made by new coach Aaron Mauger to the starting side who beat the Crusaders in last week's pre-season clash in Gore.

All Blacks flanker Elliot Dixon is once again on the bench, along with former Melbourne Rebels prop Tyrel Lomax.

READ MORE: Blues name potent backline for Super Rugby opener against Highlanders

Hulking Australian age group prop Lomax, 20, is the son of former Kiwis rugby league prop John Lomax and will be the only player to make his Highlanders debut if called into action.

All Blacks fullback and Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith makes his first top-flight appearance since taking a sabbatical midway through last year's international schedule.

Fellow co-captain Ash Dixon wins the starting hooker berth over one-Test veteran Liam Coltman.

Mauger says the opening game has been on the players' mind since gathering before Christmas and hope it reflects against a strong Blues side.

"Throughout the pre-season we have had a real focus on producing a performance that we and our supporters can be proud of," he said.

"It's great we have the opening match at our home ground for the Gordon Hunter trophy; it gives us a really good opportunity to connect with our people".

The late Gordon Hunter coached both teams and they have contested the silverware in his name 16 times since 2002.

The record is eight wins each, with the Highlanders the current holders.

Highlanders: 15. Ben Smith (co-captain), 14. Waisake Naholo, 13. Rob Thompson, 12. Teihorangi Walden, 11. Tevita Li, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Luke Whitelock, 7. Dillon Hunt, 6. Liam Squire, 5. Tom Franklin, 4. Jackson Hemopo, 3. Siate Tokolahi, 2. Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1. Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Reserves: 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Aki Seiuli, 18. Tyrel Lomax, 19. Dan Pryor, 20. Elliot Dixon, 21. Kayne Hammington, 22. Fletcher Smith, 23. Matt Faddes.

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