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<hash></hash>Preview: Blues v Force

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Thursday, July 5, 2012    Sportal.co.nz    Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday July 7 @ 1935 NZST

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 6; Blues 4, Force 1, drawn 1.

LAST TIME: March 12, 2011 (Perth) -Force 22-22 Blues.

WALKING WOUNDED: The Blues' disruptions continue unabated after the test window, with Ali Williams (injured during the test series) and Filo Paulo (suspended after the inter-Island match) gone for the balance of the season. Rudi Wulf's shoulder problems have worsened to the stage where he needed surgery, with Charles Piutau, Orene Ai'i and Andrew van der Heijden all answering urgent summons to cover gaps. David Pocock will not play either of the Force's last two matches after picking up a mild groin strain last week; instead he will use the time to rehab before the test action begins. Two other Wallabies, Matt Hodgson (ankle) and Salesi Ma'afu (broken arm), are also missing; the 24-man squad named to make the trip to New Zealand includes a number of players with little or no experience at this level.

FORM:

Blues:
Round 12: beat Lions 25-3 (h)
Round 13: lost to Crusaders 12-59 (a)
Round 14: lost to Highlanders 20-27 (h)
Round 15: lost to Chiefs 34-41 (h)
Round 16: bye

Force:
Round 12: lost to Sharks 11-53 (a)
Round 13: lost to Rebels 31-21 (h)
Round 14: beat Lions 17-11 (h)
Round 15: bye
Round 16: lost to Brumbies 17-28 (h)

The Blues winter of discontent is almost over and, in this game, they have a chance to post what would only be their third win. For a team fancied to be a contender in most pre-season picks, it has to rate as a major failing on almost all fronts, injuries and all taken into consideration. They hung tough against the Chiefs for long periods in the last outing before the break although one suspects the Chiefs were not 100 percent focused, as every time the Blues got close the Chiefs put the foot down again and promptly scored another try. There has been little to celebrate this year in Auckland, and it's likely that a lot of the squad will be looking for other employment in 2013.

The Force have only won once, against the hopeless Lions, since round six and that 45-19 thrashing of the Reds must seem like a lifetime ago. They, like the Blues, have gone close in half their defeats but they have still piled up a double-digit number in the loss column. The Force have looked the part sometimes -at Perth last week it was for a good part of the second half, but 0-22 was hardly a good starting point -but crucial errors have, time and again, prevented points being scored at vital times. The squad is pretty thin on talent and injuries have not helped, but the dismal 2012 record will still see some bloodletting in its aftermath.

WHO'S HOT: Keven Mealamu has missed most of the season, and the team has missed him. His return will be welcomed by the Blues, who have struggled without his on-field leadership and strong all-round game. That is not to decry Luke Braid's efforts as captain; the younger man has always done his best and is one of a small number of Blues players who can be reasonably satisfied that his play has never really slipped despite the strains of a losing season. Ma'a Nonu has been quiet all year but now, after a decent break, he is reported to be raring to go. With the All Black midfield still unsettled, a couple of good matches from the big bloke will please more than just Blues supporters.

Nick Cummins was one of the best on show for the Force last week, making several determined runs that threatened the Brumbies defence and collecting a couple of tries as a result. It was one of his best performances yet at this level. Nathan Sharpe, who leads the team in Pocock's absence, is closing out his monumental career in Super rugby but his effort has never wavered. As a veteran of a record 161 matches at this level, Sharpe deserves to be recognised as one of the competition's all-time leading players. There was a lot of talk about Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga this year, but the big man has hardly set the Swan on fire despite his impressive size and speed. However, he remains a dangerous opponent and one who could do some damage if he gets his game in order.

WE THINK: Since both teams have battled throughout, it's hard to make a compelling case for either in this fixture but -the possibility of a draw excepted -one of them has to win this match. The Force have not been helped by David Pocock's withdrawal and his absence will tip the balance in favour of the Blues, but how they go remains to be seen. In all likelihood, this may not be the most watchable game of the weekend but one the home side should take by ten points.

TEAMS:

Blues: 1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Keven Mealamu (capt), 3. Tevita Mailau, 4. Liaki Moli, 5. Andrew van der Heijden, 6. Steven Luatua, 7. Daniel Braid, 8. Luke Braid, 9. Piri Weepu, 10. Michael Hobbs, 11. Rene Ranger, 12. Ma'a Nonu, 13. Francis Saili, 14. Lachie Munro, 15. Charles Piutau.

Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Angus Ta'avao, 18. Chris Lowrey, 19. Peter Saili, 20. Alby Mathewson, 21. Orene Ai'i, 22. Hadleigh Parkes.

Force: 1.Pek Cowan, 2.Nathan Charles, 3.Salesi Manu, 4.Toby Lynn, 5.Nathan Sharpe (captain), 6.Richard Brown, 7.Angus Cottrell, 8.Lachlan McCaffery, 9.Brett Sheehan, 10.Ben Seymour, 11.Napolioni Nalaga, 12.Winston Stanley, 13.Will Tupou, 14.Nick Cummins, 15.Alfie Mafi.

Reserves: 16.Ben Whittaker, 17.Ruan Smith, 18.Ollie Atkins, 19.Anare Koliavu, 20.Josh Holmes, 21.Kyle Godwin, 11.Patrick Dellit.

REFEREE: Andrew Lees (Australia)