Preview: Blues v Force
Thursday, April 30, 2015 James Mortimer Getty Images
Eden Park, Auckland
Played 8 (2006-2014)
Blues wins: 6
Force wins: 1
Blues points: 246
Force points 122
Last match: Blues 40 Force 14, 28 June 2014
Round 12 teams: http://bit.ly/1GJXsxF
Form: The Blues season has been difficult especially considering how strong the NZ conference has been in 2015. Faced with one of the toughest opening half draws, the side has come so close so often – their impressive attacking numbers back up their brave efforts.
The three-time champions are still, by virtue of the calculator, within final’s reach, but it would require Sir John Kirwan’s team to win all of their remaining matches while requiring the top six to lose most of theirs.
Only once have the Blues played at Eden Park so far in 2015, and that resulted in a triumph against one of Australia’s finest in the Brumbies, victorious 16-14.
The Western Australians made history last year when they recorded nine regular season wins and came so close to qualifying for their maiden final’s appearance.
This campaign has been a struggle, with a registered nine straight losses since their opening round victory against the defending champions.
Key Players: All Blacks enforcer Jerome Kaino will be a key player against what is arguably the strongest area of the tourist’s attack, via their credentialed back row containing Ben McCalman and last season’s most prolific tackler Matt Hodgson.
Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina are reunited which should give the hosting front rack an advantage, while Akira Ioane will have another chance to showcase his speed.
The Blues backline hasn’t fired too many shots this year, in terms of try scoring, but they have the class to make an impact against a vivacious Force rear guard.
Pek Cowan and Nathan Charles are savvy enough to put up a strong challenge, while Steve Mafi and Adam Coleman are sizable additions to the Force’s tight five.
With the Honey Badger (Nick Cummins), Wallaby hopeful Kyle Godwin and the South African axis of Ryan Louwrens and Sias Ebersohn lurking in the open pastures – the 15th placed team will boast more threat than their position suggests.
Squad update: The Blues welcome back captain Kaino and fellow All Blacks Charles Piutau and James Parsons.
Kaino and Piutau return to the starting line-up with Parsons coming off the bench, along with former skipper Luke Braid, who has missed the last two games after a head knock.
Teenage star Akira Ioane retains his starting spot after eye-catching displays against the Highlanders and the Crusaders, with Lolagi Visinia rewarded with a strong game at fullback last week, moving to the right wing.
The ever-consistent lock Josh Bekhuis and midfield back George Moala are carrying niggling injuries and are currently bracketed with a final decision tomorrow on their availability.
Scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens will make his Investec Super Rugby run-on debut for Western Force in the major change for the tourists.
The 24-year-old Cottesloe half made an impressive tournament debut against the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend, and will wear the '9' jersey in place of the injured Alby Mathewson (knee) and Ian Prior, who is serving a three-week suspension.
Louwrens' promotion is the only change to the starting XV, while lock Adam Coleman has been bracketed with Wilhelm Steenkamp after sustaining a knock to his shoulder against the Chiefs.
The Blues host the Force on Saturday, 2 May, at Eden Park, Auckland. Kick off at 7.30pm NZST. For tickets, click here.
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