Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Willison has Nonu firmly in his sights

Kirwan expecting plenty of fireworks and emotion from struggling Highlanders.

Ma'a Nonu and the Highlanders have lost all five of their Super 15 games this year as their coaches, staff and public puzzle over the lack of success for the talent-filled side. Photo / Getty Images
Ma'a Nonu and the Highlanders have lost all five of their Super 15 games this year as their coaches, staff and public puzzle over the lack of success for the talent-filled side. Photo / Getty Images

The Blues are on high alert about turncoat Ma'a Nonu, but have not shied away from picking Jackson Willison for his first start against the All Blacks midfielder.

Nonu and the Highlanders have lost all five of their Super 15 games this year as their coaches, staff and public puzzle over the lack of success for the talent-filled side.

That anxiety also sits with the Blues who have not won for a month and are fearful of the damage the Highlanders can cause at Eden Park tomorrow night.

"They can't win a trick and I don't want them to win one this Friday either so that's the nature of this tournament," coach Sir John Kirwan said.

"Look at us, we've lost three in a row so we're under the pump as well. It's going to be a huge game with lots of fireworks and lots of emotion."

"Ma'a Nonu will bring his A-game and I think we're seeing Hosea Gear on the wing having his best season. We've got a whole lot of good footballers against us that are hurting. They're seriously dangerous, we're going to have to have a great game to beat them."

While the Blues have identified the visiting threats, Kirwan has picked Willison to make his first Blues start in midfield and has chosen Tim Perry for his second appearance at loosehead prop.

Willison had 39 caps for the Chiefs and when he was squeezed out, he answered the call to replace Nonu who left after one season at the Blues.

After three appearances from the bench, Willison will suit up in the No 12 jersey instead of Francis Saili while Perry replaces Tom McCartney.

"We think Francis has been playing well but he's been playing a lot so we want him to take some time out and reassess and then come off the bench for us," Kirwan said.

The Blues will be banking on the defensive accuracy Willison can bring to their line in a match they need to win to stay on the coat-tails of the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes. The 24-year-old will not be overawed by the occasion as he has faced all of the topline players in New Zealand since he debuted for Waikato in 2007, then the Chiefs two years later.

"Defence is something I do not shy away from and I'm confident I have had enough experience to cope at this level," he said.

"I will try and bring some more talk to our game but this will be a big challenge in midfield for Rens (Rene Ranger) and me."

Nonu had been a benchmark player in midfield for some years and there would be no surprises in tomorrow's confrontation. Willison would be working to a well-researched set of principles in trying to keep Nonu in check.

"It is all about limiting his time on the ball," Willison said.

"You have got to drop him in the tackle and if we do that then that will go towards our goals. He will look to get really involved.

"Like all the All Blacks they are looking to get into places to create mismatches all the time."

Selection

Blues team to play the Highlanders:

Charles Piutau
Frank Halai
Rene Ranger
Jackson Willison
George Moala
Chris Noakes
Piri Weepu
Peter Saili
Luke Braid
Steven Luatua
Ali Williams (c)
Culum Retallick
Angus Ta'avao
James Parsons
Tim Perry

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Francis Saili.

- NZ Herald

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