Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Highlanders and Blues deliver goods

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Nonu and Saili straightened attack while Fekitoa was spectacular.

The work done by midfielders Ma'a Nonu, above, and Francis Saili helped the Blues win the game against the Waratahs. Photo / Greg Bowker
The work done by midfielders Ma'a Nonu, above, and Francis Saili helped the Blues win the game against the Waratahs. Photo / Greg Bowker

A couple of New Zealand teams made real statements this weekend - the Blues and the Highlanders - and in completely different ways.

First, the Blues. Everybody knows they were under pressure following the Benji Marshall drama in the build-up to their match against the Waratahs. They were up against a quality side, with some very good individuals in the form of Kurtley Beal, Israel Folau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, who can break any game apart.

The Waratahs weren't at their optimum - their mistakes kept them out of the game. But what I liked about the Blues was their physical approach. That physicality and the hits they made and pressure and energy they put in on defence contributed to the Waratahs' mistakes. That was a real positive for the Blues. I admired their more direct approach. At times they were opened up and outflanked but they adjusted.

What helped was the work done by their midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Francis Saili.

If they felt there was nothing on, rather than shovel it on which the Blues have been guilty of in the past, they stepped with purpose and straightened the attack.

It enabled Jerome Kaino to thrive. Kaino played a similar role to what Kieran Read plays when carrying the ball two or three wide and he has the ability to cause major damage there. I liked that minor adjustment to their game plan.

I'm still wondering about their best option at No 10. Some of the pressure coming on from the midfield this season is partly due to the Blues' first fives being too deep and not challenging the gain line enough. That's probably the one work-on for them. Bryn Hall is challenging the defence at halfback, taking his opportunities around the ruck, but you need your 10 to do that as well. It offers up more opportunities for your No 9 and the midfield as well.

Now for the Highlanders. I said during the week in a radio interview that there was a possibility the Highlanders could sneak in under the radar in Durban against the form team of the competition. Yes, the Highlanders had strung a few good games together but few would have considered them capable of beating the Sharks at home. With the Sharks underestimating them and not at their best, the Highlanders showed their true quality. They didn't do it by suffocating them either, they did it by scoring points. It was the most impressive victory by a New Zealand team in South Africa this year.

With the Stormers in Cape Town to come, they have a real opportunity to come home with maximum points.

They face the Lions in Dunedin when they come home. A victory there and they will be vying for the lead of the New Zealand conference.

New centre Malakai Fekitoa has impressed me since his move south. His try from nearly 60m at Kings Park was spectacular and not the only try of that type he has scored this year.

He is a real spark for the Highlanders and it wouldn't surprise me if the All Blacks were looking at him. They need depth at centre and Ben Smith, tried there last year in the absence of Conrad Smith, is an outside back. The only way you build depth is to give players with potential and the ability to fit your game plan a go. He could be named as an All Black as soon as this year.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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