Preview: Blues v Lions

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Saturday, March 7, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday, March 7, 19:35 (NZDT)

H2H: Played 7, Blues 6, Lions 1

Last match: Lions 39 Blues 36, 15.03.14 in Johannesburg

Squad update: Lions head coach Johan Ackermann has made two changes to his starting team for Saturday's clash with the Blues in Albany, the South Africans first match of a four game tour.

Corne Fourie gets a start at loosehead prop, while Ross Cronje comes in at halfback.

For the Blues, record breaking hooker Mealamu has been named in the starting line-up which will be his 163rd appearance in Investec Super Rugby. This will make him the all-time leader in Super Rugby, a mark he currently shares with retired former Reds, Force and Wallabies lock Nathan Sharpe.

It is the first game of the season for Mealamu who made his debut in 2000, who has been named alongside fellow All Black Charlie Faumuina and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who gets his first start of the season.

Steven Luatua is back to his regular starting spot in the loose forwards with captain Jerome Kaino and Luke Braid. Last year’s Blues Development player of the year, Melani Nanai has earned a second start after a useful debut in South Africa as a replacement, to be joined by Frank Halai, who makes his first appearance of the season following rehabilitation from an off-season shoulder operation.

Form: It has been a tough start to the season for the Blues who are sitting at 0-3, after having to face the two-time champions to open their campaign before back-to-back trips to the Republic. 

A heartbreaking loss to the Cheetahs might have prevented the Auckland based franchise from getting on the board, but their attacking stats so far this season have the franchise in the top three for many offensive metrics. 

Closing off those opportunities to points will be high on the agenda. 

The Lions came into the year with high hopes considering the progress Johann Ackerman has made with the side and their strong showing in the Currie Cup in 2014. 

Like the Blues, they have three losses to their credit, and, like their opponents, were lucky not to be successful in their last outing, losing 22-19 to the Stormers in a one-try apiece contest. 

Key players: For the Blues look no further than Keven Mealamu, who makes history by becoming the most capped player in the history of Investec Super Rugby. 

However against a vastly underrated scrum (the Lions have the best scrum completion of any team), the record breaking hooker will have his work cut out for him. 

All Blacks Pat Tuipulotu and Jerome Kaino were all aggression last week and will want other forwards like Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Steven Luatau to add to the direct play we are beginning to see from the Blues.

Ihaia West’s running abilities are not in question but Blues fans will want the young playmaker to start taking matches by the scruff of the neck, and with Jimmy Cowan’s veteran words coming thick and strong, watch West look to impose himself on the game. 

The tongue twisting Julian Redelinghuys and Corne Fourie form a young but powerful front row for the tourists, but it is the prowess of the loose forwards that will have the home team on alert. 

Captain Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel operate more like a New Zealand back row, not fitting the traditional African template of immense figures in the loose, but matching the preferred Kiwi blueprint of speed at the breakdown. 

Elton Jantjies, like West a fine ball player but far from a master match conductor, will look to ensure his exciting backline is primed to score points. 

However midfielder Lionel Mapoe, their defensive linchpin, will need to marshal the men around him to contain strike backs like Charles Piutau and Francis Saili, who constitute the Blues midfield.