Tony Woodcock likely for Blues in cellar scrap
All Blacks coaches offer inputMARC HINTON
The beleaguered Blues will take every bit of good news they can get at the moment - and the likely return of All Black prop Tony Woodcock this week definitely comes into that category.
As does the presence of the All Blacks coaches past and present in the camp this week as the Blues receive a scheduled visit from Steve Hansen and his crew and also a look-in from World Cup-winning maestro Sir Graham Henry.
Coach Pat Lam confirmed today that his classy loosehead was "looking good" to return from a calf injury and front John Mitchell's Lions on Friday at Eden Park in the battle of Super Rugby's losingest teams.
The Blues, with Friday's 35-19 defeat to the Hurricanes in Wellington, have lost seven on the trot and nine of their 10 matches this season. They are the bottom placed team overall with just 12 competition points.
The Lions fell to their eighth consecutive defeat against the Chiefs in Pukekohe on Saturday night and their record of 1-8 for 14 competition points is equally as dismal. Only the extra bye sees them ahead in the tussle to avoid the wooden spoon.
Lam, steadfastly buoyant despite his team's abysmal form, said Woodcock's return would be a huge boost for what shapes as a defining sort of clash, for all the wrong reasons.
But beyond that there were few bright lights on the horizon.
Skipper Keven Mealamu looks likely to miss another week with his own calf problems, and Lam admitted the hooker's June test prospects now had to come under a cloud.
"He's doubtful," said Lam of his skipper's chances of fronting this week - a scenario that he felt now applied to his June chances.
"It's more a case now of making sure we do everything right. We don't want to risk him if he's not quite right. The mind is willing, but it's just making sure the body is there."
Lam will also have to make a change in his loose trio to face the Lions, with Chris Lowrey ruled out after suffering concussion against the Canes. Wing George Moala is also highly doubtful with groin problems. Loose forward Steven Luatua has been called into the squad for the rest of the campaign.
"It's obviously a big game for us and what we need to do to get the win," said Lam. "When you make changes, injury enforced or whatever, it's about getting clarity for the individuals concerned.
Lam has a host of areas to focus on as he looks to break the losing streak against the struggling Lions who showed signs against the Chiefs that they may have turned a corner with their play.
The big South African pack scored all three of their tries in Pukekohe off the back of driving mauls from the lineout, and they will have eyed the flimsy Blues set piece and some pretty ordinary tackling against the Hurricanes with more than a little relish.
"There are a lot of similarities with what they've been going through and what we're going through," said Lam. "I suppose it is quite a desperate game for both teams which should make it a challenge.
"They're a good side, particularly in the forward pack, and we respect every team because of where we are. We want to get a win."
To do so Lam admitted that the Blues are going to have to execute better in the lineout, where they won just five of nine on their own throw against the Hurricanes, and also provide a more rigid defensive line.
"It's just those little things similar to the rest our game. At crucial times, when we had opportunities to score, it would be wrong decisions, dropped ball or bad pass. It's all part of it."
Lions and former All Blacks coach John Mitchell reckoned it came down to which team would find its confidence first.
"Everyone's got their theories. I think the top teams are a cut above the middle teams, as always in this competition, but I think the middle teams just have a little more confidence than the bottom teams, and the bottom teams are trying to find confidence.
"Ultimately Friday night will come down to who gets the momentum and who's prepared to back themselves and finish. I'm not sure a team will get confidence from one win but it certainly will help."
The Blues had the All Blacks coaches and medical team in as part of their regular visits round the franchises, and Lam confirmed that as well as interviews with selected players, they would also be offering their input into the team's operation.
The same went with Henry who sat in on today's team meeting and continued to offer advice when called upon.
"He pops in now and again through his busy schedule. It's always good when he comes in, he feels the frustration and talks about things he's seen too," said Lam.
"He's just asking the questions like we do, and it's good to have him here. He's another voice, another insight."
But really what the Blues need most right now is another win.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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