The Highlanders are preparing for a bruising and buoyant Blues outfit in their Super Rugby opener at Eden Park.
The Auckland-based side cruised through an unbeaten pre-season featuring wins over the Rebels, Hurricanes and Chiefs to have them primed for Friday’s match.
They will, however, be without captain Jerome Kaino, who was given a one-week suspension for hitting Chiefs prop Pauliasi Manu last weekend.
Highlanders assistant coach Tony Brown says his side are putting all of their energy into combating a team who had found their rhythm early on.
“Everyone in New Zealand has known they’ve got the talent and the quality players,” Brown said.
“The coaches have got them playing together which is very dangerous.”
Brown expects the physical Blues to play a similar style to the way new coach Tana Umaga performed for the Hurricanes and All Blacks, focusing on the aggression and winning the collision.
Halfback Aaron Smith echoed Brown’s statements, and noted the unity that the Blues were playing with after struggling in 2015 under Sir John Kirwan, winning three of 16 games.
“From what I’ve seen in pre-season, they’re very different, very alive,” Smith said.
“They’re really playing for each other and playing for Tana.”
The Highlanders finished their pre-season with a 40-35 win over the Waratahs last Friday in Queenstown, with All Blacks backs Ben and Aaron Smith, and Malakai Fekitoa impressing, along with former Chiefs No.8 Liam Squire.
Test halfback Smith had another exceptional campaign last year as the Highlanders secured their first Super Rugby trophy before the All Blacks retained the Rugby World Cup.
However, he says the time to reflect on last year has gone.
Instead, the focus has been on using last year’s efforts to improve and become a better player and a better leader.
Despite their status as defending champions, Brown says they aren’t surprised the bookmakers and some critics don’t rate the Highlanders’ prospects of a title repeat.
“There’s no pressure at all. No one really rates us, even though we did win last year.
“We’re going in with the same mindset as last year.”