To victor a lifeline as Blues face Force in Perth
"No excuses" is the Blues' motto in Perth as they seek to end a 16-month, 13-game road losing skid in Super Rugby and breathe some life into their ailing playoff hopes.
The equation is a simple one for Sir John Kirwan's bottom-placed New Zealand conference side tomorrow night at NIB Stadium - beat the Western Force, or miss the post-season for a third straight year.
Given the promise, hype and expectation which greeted Kirwan's appointment for the 2013 season, that prospect would be disappointing to say the least. New Zealand's most populous rugby region demands much, much better.
The Blues have absolutely no margin for error. Sitting on just 31 points - six off the top-six cutoff - they need to win their last three matches to have any hope of squeezing into the playoff picture.
To get that ball rolling against an equally desperate Force outfit - their own top-six ambitions requiring a victory - the Blues have to overcome their horror roadshow.
Their last away victory was against the Hurricanes in Wellington on February 23 last year and since then they've dropped all 13 on the road - 14 if you count their jaunt up SH1 to Albany this season. That, simply, is not going to cut it at this level which Kirwan acknowledged as he surveyed the challenge in Perth this week.
"We've still got our destiny in our own hands," he said. "It's a hard ask over there, it's 11.45pm New Zealand time [kickoff] so we've got all the excuses in the world but we've been talking about absolutely no excuses.
"We need to pick up from the last game (against the Canes at Eden Park) which was probably our best performance all season and if we're going to be a contender we actually need to start winning away and getting on a roll."
Easier said than done clearly for these road worriers, but there's no reason why the rot can't stop now for a Blues side fielding seven current All Blacks and three others of recent vintage in their game-day squad.
But talent has never been this team's issue. Teamwork, tenacity, tactics and flat out execution - now that's another matter. It is time for the Blues to stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk.
Kirwan has picked a team surely capable of getting the job done. Steven Luatua's return at No 6 looks a smart selection, for the fringe All Black has a point or two to prove. He's been challenged by his coaches to lift fitness and workrate levels, and needs to answer that call.
The Blues pack can lay the foundation. The front row is an All Black one, Patrick Tuipulotu has been the big mover of the year in the second row and that loose trio of Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid and Luatua has a well-rounded look about it.
The backline is young but capable - the evergreen Ma'a Nonu the obvious exception. And there's firepower on the bench in the form of Francis Saili and Tevita Li, a young man going places fast.
The Force, though, are tough nuts at home and welcome back former All Black, and Blues, halfback Alby Mathewson and veteran forward Hugh McMenamin off the injury-list. The Kiwi will be bristling to send a message in his first match against a franchise where he felt he never quite got fair treatment.
As always the Honey Badger, the inimitable Nick Cummins, will be worth watching and the Force's own loose trio of McMenamin, skipper Matt Hodgson and Ben McCalman look set for a mighty battle against their vaunted opposites.
To the victor goes not so much the spoils, but the playoff lifeline.
WESTERN FORCE: Jayden Hayward, Dane Haylett-Perry, Marcel Brache, Chris Tuatara-Morrison, Nick Cummins, Sias Ebersohn, Alby Mathewson; Ben McCalman, Matt Hodgson (capt), Hugh McMeniman, Adam Coleman, Sam Wykes, Kieran Longbottom, Nathan Charles, Pek Cowan. Reserves: Heath Tessmann, Tetera Faulkner, Oliver Hoskins, Wilhem Steenkamp, Brynard Stander, Ian Prior, Zack Holmes, Solomoni Rasolea.
BLUES: Lolagi Visinia, Frank Halai, Pita Ahki, Ma'a Nonu, George Moala, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall; Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid (capt), Steven Luatua, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tom Donnelly, Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: James Parsons, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Hayden Triggs, Peter Saili, Piri Weepu, Francis Saili, Tevita Li.
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