Preview: Blues v Chiefs

Getty Images

Friday, July 11, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday, July 11, 2014, 19:35pm (NZT)

H2H: Played 22, Blues 10, Chiefs 12

Last time: Blues 20-32 Chiefs (May 9, 2014)

Squad update: The Chiefs have made just one change coming into what is effectively a knockout final for both franchises, with Bundee Aki coming in to replace an injured Charlie Ngatai. It is, with some irony, the first time all season coach Dave Rennie hasn’t had to make mass changes due to casualties.

All focus will be on the champion’s marquee operators however. Brodie Retallick, crowned as the ‘Player of the Year’ for the franchise has been immense all season, while Aaron Cruden will need to start taking matches by the scruff of the neck if the Chiefs are to make their charge into the top six.

The Blues were handed a blow with news that stalwart Luke Braid will miss the match and undergo shoulder surgery, while All Blacks loosehead prop Tony Woodcock, in fine touch of late, will also be missing. With the likes of Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Under 20s sensation Tevita Li in a backline featuring Ma’a Nonu, the battle out wide will be one to watch very closely indeed.

Form: The Chiefs simply had to defeat the Hurricanes last week which they achieved with a hard fought 24-16 win in Hamilton, stopping a run of three straight losses. Eight bonus points and a couple of draws have helped the champion’s ledger but with just seven wins this season they will need to be impressive if they are to get the attention of the heavyweight contenders coming into the Investec Super Rugby Finals Series.

The Blues could have had things easier if they had managed to beat the Crusaders but while they weren’t able to put together three straight wins for the first time this season, they did show how competitive they can be even if their power game was well contained by the seven-time title holders.

Key players: The Chiefs will need Tim Nanai-Williams, who has been quiet for most of the campaign, to have a big match against a star studded Blues back division that will cause chaos if given the chance. The combination of the centre with new face Aki will need to click instantly to shut down the home team’s power runners.

The Blues will look to big Patrick Tuipulotu and his mouth watering clash with Retallick. The massive lock, the newest entrant to the All Blacks locking fraternity, has been handy in the air but has been making his mark in general play, much like his Chiefs opposite. Nearly 250kg of second row grunt flying around will be eye catching to say the least.

Key matchup: Liam Messam has had his worst nightmares realised this year with Jerome Kaino making a fine return to New Zealand Rugby, to the point where most pundits would pick the Blues bruiser ahead of the Chiefs flank in a Test back row.

While Messam enjoys close quarter combat more than he ever has, Kaino is a unique beast, one of the few overseas players to return home and find that his rampaging form has not deserted him.

Kaino believed he had one of his quieter games last week and has said he needs to review his preparation to make sure he is playing high octane rugby with every outing, and if he puts in such a performance tonight, Messam will have his busy hands very full.

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Lolagi Visinia/George Moala, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Sam Prattley.

Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Jackson Willison, 23 George Moala/Albert Nikoro.

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.

Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Dwayne Sweeney.