Preview: Force v Blues

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Saturday, June 28, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, June 28, 2014, 23:45pm (NZT)

H2H: Played 7, Blues 6, Force 1, Drawn 1

Last time: Force 9-32 Blues (July 7, 2012)

Squad update: As if a remarkable eight wins so far wasn’t enough, the Force will emerge from June with six players returning from injury, with Alby Mathewson, Hugh McMeniman and Ben McCalman headlining that group. With captain Matt Hodgson not required by the Wallabies extensively, Super Rugby’s best tackler (by number made) will relish the rest to approach the campaign close with the required vigour.

The Blues have near to a full strength squad, bolstered by plenty of All Blacks returning after cutting their teeth in their first Tests for the year, even if most of them are based up front. Tony Woodcock was tackling like a man possessed in Hamilton, while the back row has the thrill of seeing a potential explosion with Steven Luatua and Jerome Kaino at six and eight respectively.

Out wide Ma’a Nonu is the only 2014 All Black in the starting arsenal, but with Ihaia West getting another start, the direction will not be pragmatic from the ginger haired general. The benches backs look all class, World Cup 10s winning captain Piri Weepu, Under 20s sensation Tevita Li and returning All Black Francis Saili wait for the call.

Form: The Force are coming off their heaviest loss of the season thanks to a rampant Crusaders team, but overall are in good touch, not a rampant or overly elaborate side, but one that has brilliant defensive structure and tenacity, as well as plenty of well controlled emotion. With eight wins a victory here will ensure they are well placed for a maiden top six position.

The Blues have been one of the most inconsistent teams of the campaign, over ten weeks the team stretched a perfect two win, two loss (and so on…) stretch. Not once in 2014 has Sir John Kirwan’s men won two straight, but equally have never lost more than back-to-back contests.

It is though the unlucky 13 (touring losses) which will play on the mind of the three-time champions, still with a very fine chance of qualifying for the finals. It was Round two in the 2013 season that the Blues last won away (in Wellington). It is part of a greater malaise that has seen the team win just three wins away in 25. Unbeaten at Eden Park this year perhaps, they don’t return there until Round 19.

Key players: The return of Mathewson cannot be underestimated, while the Blues may have changed since he left, he still has knowledge of their workings and has risen to become arguably the Perth based team’s most important player. Sias Ebersohn has been a little unheralded, his defence and ability to run have given the Force more attack.

The Blues need the duo of Luatau and Kaino to make a significant impact here against a Force back row that operates very much as a single unit, and the wide ranging ball carrying or hit abilities of the visitor’s forwards won’t count much if the Western Australian’s tight knit aggression eventuates in the ruck exchanges. Nonu, as the most experienced backline player by a healthy margin on either side, will know if he has a big match things will lean towards the Blues.

Key matchup: Hodgson needs to make just two tackles tonight to register 200. To put that into perspective he will have a minimum 32 tackle lead on the rest of the players on the defensive charts at the end of the weekend. Only Jarrad Butler of the Brumbies, fifth overall with 141, will be able to make ground on the Force captain by the conclusion of Round 17.

Luke Braid might not have the granite like stature of his back row partners, but if every All Black was stolen by Aliens, one suspects that one of the better players not to have ever won the fern would be among the first called up. He will need to be at his scalpel like best against a very well drilled Force trio.

Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Hugh McMeniman, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.

Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Solomoni Rasolea.

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Charlie Faumuina/ Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Angus Ta'avao/ Tom McCartney, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Piri Weepu, 22 Francis Saili, 23 Tevita Li.