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Preview: Blues v Hurricanes

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Thursday, March 22, 2012    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

However, the Hurricanes are a tricky team to get past in what could well be a pivotal early-season encounter for both sides.

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Friday March 23 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 17; Blues 11, Hurricanes 5, drawn 1.

LAST TIME: May 6, 2011 (Wellington) - Hurricanes 11-17 Blues.

WALKING WOUNDED: Luke Braid copped a three-week suspension for striking after he whacked Stormers replacement Nizaam Carr last week, although this is down from the original five. As a result, he will miss his first Blues match in two years with the team. Keven Mealamu, another almost ever-present, has been ruled out with a calf problem but the news is better for Tony Woodcock, who makes his first appearance of the year, while Rudi Wulf and David Raikuna return from injury to take the two wing positions. There has been a considerable shake-up of personnel, especially in the loose forwards and inside backs, with Piri Weepu starting at first-five and Brad Mika in the boot of the scrum. Things were a lot easier for Mark Hammett who, with the exception of a bracket at loosehead prop, has named an unchanged side from the Highlanders match.

FORM:
Blues:
Round 1: lost to Crusaders 18-19 (h)
Round 2: lost to Chiefs 14-29 (a)
Round 3: beat Bulls 29-23 (a)
Round 4: lost to Stormers 17-27 (a)

Hurricanes:
Round 1: lost to Stormers 26-39 (a)
Round 2: beat Lions 30-28 (a)
Round 3: beat Force 46-19 (a)
Round 4: lost to Highlanders 17-19 (h)

The Blues were favoured by many to be among the leading playoff contenders but as yet have hardly fired a shot, which means they sit at the bottom of the New Zealand conference and only one from the bottom of the combined ladder. Hampered by injuries and now suspension, the side is taking a while to gel but the biggest concerns must be over a shaky set piece. The lineout has not functioned properly all season and the scrum was beaten up last week at Cape Town, so urgent improvement is needed in these two key areas. On paper the Blues have plenty of big names, but as yet they have not made a big impact on the field.

The Hurricanes have only four All Blacks in the starting XV but their performance has been better than many expected. Two good wins on tour pushed them up the ladder and that narrow defeat to the Highlanders showed the team is coming along well, even if the win escaped them. Although unwillingly drawn into a forward battle with the strong Highlanders pack, the Hurricanes were not played out of the game up front; rather, the result hinged on several plays which could have gone either way and in the end neither team really got the rub of the green. A point was the least the Hurricanes deserved; in fairness, justice was also probably seen to be done at fulltime.

WHO'S HOT: Tony Woodcock will be the focus of much attention on Friday night, but it would be unfair to expect the All Black loosehead to come in and fix all the Blues' problems in one stroke. Rather, he will need more support than has been forthcoming so far; a solid hour or so would be a good return after months out of the game. Two former Hurricanes have a big role in the inside backs, where Piri Weepu starts in the 10 shirt and Ma'a Nonu is one place further out. Weepu has not yet fitted into one role in the Blues, and will be asked to settle down straight away and control what has been, at times, a wayward backline. There should not be too many issues with his goal-kicking, as he is normally a high-percentage marksman. Nonu is getting back into the swing and has made some telling thrusts in his games to date, but is not yet at his best on either side of the ball. With all that went down in Wellington a year ago, he will be dead keen to hit his straps this week.

Young Jeffery Toomaga-Allen has been handed the tighthead role for the visitors, which means he faces off against Woodcock. Although inexperienced, he has impressed so far this season and looks set to make the No 3 shirt his own before too much longer. This will be a good marker to gauge his future progress against. Victor Vito is playing in top form at present, and looks a cut above the player he was 12 months ago - even though his form then was also very good. Perhaps his late selection to the World Cup squad boosted his self-belief, but now Vito plays like an All Black every time he steps onto the field and that only means trouble for the opposition. Another who has taken a big step forward is winger Julian Savea, who now looks at home in Super rugby. He has worked hard on several aspects of his game, especially the defensive ones, while retaining all the speed and power that has always marked him out as a dangerous attacker. There's still room for him to improve further, but he has made good progress in a short time.

WE THINK: The Blues need to regard this match as a ‘must-win', even this early in the season. So far, apart from that unexpected win at Pretoria, they have hardly impressed and a moderate performance against this Hurricanes side won't be good enough. The visitors appeal as a side that knows what it wants to achieve and how to go about it, with every man doing his bit. It should be a close contest, but the Hurricanes get the nod here by a few points.

TEAMS:

Blues: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Liaki Moli, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Chris Lowrey, 7. Daniel Braid (capt), 8. Brad Mika, 9. Alby Mathewson, 10. Piri Weepu, 11. Rudi Wulf, 12. Ma'a Nonu, 13. Benson Stanley, 14. David Raikuna, 15. Lachie Munro.

Replacements: 16. James Parsons, 17. Tevita Mailau, 18. Filo Paulo, 19. Sean Polwart, 20. Gareth Anscombe, 21. Michael Hobbs, 22. Hadleigh Parkes.


Hurricanes: 1. Ben May or Michael Bent, 2. Dane Coles, 3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 4. Jeremy Thrush, 5. Jason Eaton, 6. Faifili Levave, 7. Jack Lam, 8. Victor Vito, 9. TJ Perenara, 10. Beauden Barrett, 11. Julian Savea, 12. Tim Bateman, 13. Conrad Smith (capt), 14. Cory Jane, 15. Andre Taylor.

Replacements: 16. Motu Matu'u, 17. Bent or Tristan Moran, 18. James Broadhurst, 19. Brad Shields, 20. Chris Eaton, 21. Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22. Charlie Ngatai.

REFEREE: Steve Walsh (Australia)