It's time for the Blues to head West with Ihaia
Unwanted by the Hurricanes, snapped up by the Blues in their hour of need, it's shaping as a big night for Ihaia West at Eden Park on Saturday.
The 22-year-old first five-eighths from Hawke's Bay is being tipped to earn his first start for the freefalling Blues this week, which just happens to coincide with a visit by the on-fire Hurricanes.
If West does get the nod at No 10 - the team will be named tomorrow - he will certainly be motivated to deliver. After a standout provincial season for the Magpies in 2013, he was overlooked by the Canes who opted for Tasman's Marty Banks to cover their playmaking role.
That left West in a form of limbo, but he resisted any urge to bolt this early in his career, and elected to stay and battle for an opportunity. He's got that with the Blues (whistled up when Baden Kerr broke his hand), and has delivered three straight increasingly authoritative performances off the bench that now has the drums beating in his favour.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan wouldn't be drawn yesterday on his preference between West and Auckland youngster Simon Hickey, who has been the favoured starter for much of this campaign.
But there have been signs over back-to-back defeats to the Chiefs and Sharks that Hickey's hesitancy to stand flat, and to engage the defensive line, has been holding back the Blues attack. Both are small men, but there's a belief that West's more natural playmaking style might suit the talent outside him a little better.
Given that last Friday's 29-23 defeat to the Sharks in Albany now has the Blues in sudden-death mode - even the eternally optimistic Kirwan admits it's must-win time now - rolling the dice with West probably enters nothing to lose territory.
Kirwan was certainly doing nothing to rule out the move when he spoke to the media yesterday.
"He's certainly putting pressure on," he said. "He's come on and done everything we asked of him, so he's up for consideration."
Kirwan felt both of his No 10s had been playing well, but admitted they were "different" players with contrasting skillsets.
Hickey is a technician, adept at the core skills of his trade, and he plays a traditional style five-eighth game; West is the more flamboyant, freestyling type, more likely to make the unexpected happen.
West also looks to have a little more robustness about his game, while Hickey's goalkicking has been razor-sharp since himself being called up from the wider training squad.
"They're two different players and they're both contributing - it's just what sort of game we're going to play this week."
Kirwan is adamant that in Hickey and West he has his playmakers for the future, though he did add "money in the bank" by signing the UK-based Daniel Bowden for next year. He says, unlike last off season, he hasn't got Beauden Barrett in his sights - other than as an opponent this weekend.
But Kirwan said it was important to grow the young playmakers by giving them experience in the saddle.
"Whether Ihaia plays or Simon plays, it's a high-pressure situation you've got to implement and you can only do that by playing. I'm happy with the young guys, they're getting better, and we're just not getting over the line from a points point of view."
Given his situation, and the last two results, it might appear Kirwan has only one play to make. Like his team, he has to be bold.
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