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Trophy adds meaning for Highlanders

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 6/04/2017

The memory of former coach Gordon Hunter is still a motivating factor for the Highlanders, 15 years after his death.

Coach Tony Brown paid tribute to Hunter as the southerners prepared to face the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday, when the trophy etched in the former detective's name will be at stake.

The Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy is contested by the two Super Rugby teams he was involved with as a coach and has been the property of the Highlanders since the Blues ceded it in 2012.

If the Highlanders retain the silverware this weekend, it will be their eighth such success, matching the number of Blues' wins since the rivalry began in 2002, when cancer took Hunter's life aged 52.

"Every player who played under Gordie loved him, especially down this way," Brown said.

"Everyone went out there and performed probably better than they actually were, and that was his strength as a coach."

Brown acknowledges Hunter, who was also an All Blacks selector, influenced his own coaching style along with that of his title-winning predecessor Jamie Joseph.

The teams are bringing up the rear in the powerhouse New Zealand conference, with records of three wins and three losses. The Blues have claimed an extra bonus point.

Both are coming off successive wins over offshore-based teams and are welcoming back key players from injury.

Highlanders captain Ben Smith returns at fullback while imposing fellow-All Black Liam Squire is is back from a knee injury, named among the reserves.

On the opposition bench is Sonny Bill Williams, the cross-code star poised to make his Blues debut and play his first game of 15-a-side rugby since the 2015 World Cup final.

Loose forward Steven Luatua returns from suspension in the starting Blues pack.

Brown is picking the result between two closely matched teams won't be decided until late.

"Creating that impact off the bench can change games and win games in that last 20 minutes," Brown said.

"We focus a lot on that, and I'm sure the Blues do as well."

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