Ruthless Kirwan in no mood for forgiveness

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 27/02/2014
simon hickey benji marshall
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BIG ASK: Simon Hickey, left, will start at Noth10 for the Blues against the Crusaders tomorrow night while Benji Marshall, right, is on the bench.

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One strike and you're out.

Chris Noakes could be forgiven for thinking that's the Blues selection stance this year.

Coach Sir John Kirwan certainly unveiled a ruthless policy yesterday. 

By taking an early hard-line approach Kirwan has his players on notice, but also risks adding extra pressure to perform.

After struggling in the first-up loss to the Highlanders, Noakes will watch Friday's heavyweight clash with the Crusaders from the Eden Park stands.

In what could be viewed as a kneejerk reaction, 20-year-old Auckland rookie Simon Hickey has been handed the chance to run the cutter on debut.

"Preseason is over. This is a tough game. We'll pick on form next week too," Kirwan said. "We talked about internal competition. It's time to give him a chance. Both teams are under pressure and we need the points."   

Lock Liaki Moli has also been dropped to the bench, with the impressive 1.98m Patrick Tuipulotu earning a start.

Giving Noakes a second chance, and allowing Hickey to ease in via the bench, seemed the pragmatic option.

Instead, Kirwan has shown his bold hand by throwing last year's Auckland NPC player of the year in the deep end and retaining star recruit Benji Marshall on the bench.

 "Benji covers both positions. We could see what he could do the other night," he said. "He'll get better. When he comes on he sparks us. We just need to be ready for that."

Kirwan lavished Hickey with praise, saying he followed the same pathway as Chiefs and All Blacks pivot Aaron Cruden through the New Zealand under-20s ranks - and even said he harnessed the calmness of Grant Fox.   

"He's a mature young man who is ready for the next step," he said. "I've got complete faith in him. He's ready."

It will be interesting to note how the coach reacts if Hickey doesn't immediately live up to that billing. There's little doubt this sink or swim policy is a gamble.

The looming two-game trip to South Africa and news back-up pivot Baden Kerr's hand injury will keep him at home may have forced Kirwan's hand.

Marshall isn't ready to start at No.10. Kirwan has clearly lost faith in Noakes. Options are already wearing thin.

While plans at first five-eighth seem as uncertain as ever, Kirwan has held firm on his mantra of reintegrating All Blacks front-rowers Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu. Both will start from the bench.

"We've got a plan around those guys. They haven't played any football," he said. "They're good enough to start but part of the progression is for them to play 30 minutes on Friday night."

The diminutive Hickey, also a star King's College cricket player, was caught off guard by his sudden promotion from the wider training group but backed his 83-kg frame to handle the presence of returning Crusaders captain Kieran Read, who is sure to test out his channel.

"They'll be coming at me," he said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge. I like to be a player who will take it to the line and be a bit of a threat and marshal the troops.

"I'll take a bit of confidence out of playing a full season with Auckland but I know this will be a big step up."

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Captain Luke Braid is also expected to recover from an ankle injury.

BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, George Moala, Jackson Willison, Tevita Li, Simon Hickey, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid/Brendon O'Connor, Steven Luatua, Tom Donnelly, Patrick Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Sam Prattley. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Angus Ta'avao, Liaki Moli, O'Connor/Jordan Manihera, Bryn Hall, Benji Marshall, Pita Ahki.

- Fairfax Media

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