Saili up to challenge of marking Conrad Smith

PERSONAL TRIUMPH: Francis Saili playing against the Hurricanes.
PERSONAL TRIUMPH: Francis Saili playing against the Hurricanes.

Opposing Conrad Smith would have been a daunting task for Francis Saili last year.

Like most rugby pundits, Saili regards Smith as the benchmark in the No 13 jersey.

Last year Smith's status would have caused anxieties for the Blues midfielder who admits to being overawed by the prospect of clashing with big-name players in Super Rugby.

"The first time I played against Sonny [Bill-Williams] I was like 'damn he's a big guy'. I was still star-truck," Saili said.

That is behind him now. Tomorrow night at Eden Park the 22-year-old will be more fearless. 

There won't be any hesitations to flatten Smith on defence or attempt to run over him on attack.

While Saili's respect for the Hurricanes captain is through the roof, with experience he has learnt it is best not to buy in to reputations. 

This approach was evident when he targeted Dan Carter in the Blues win over the Crusaders.

"This year I've looked at someone as just another player, not seeing them as an amazing All Black," he noted.

Smith was at his influential best against the Waratahs last week, sparking the second-half onslaught which secured a fourth straight win, but the veteran will also be aware it was Saili who caused havoc in the Blues' round one upset in Wellington.

"I know Conrad is renowned as the greatest defender in the world at centre," Saili said. 

"For me to test my attacking abilities against him, it will be a good opportunity to see where I'm at - try something I haven't done before.

"I've seen a lot of guys get cut-up from him. I'm going to try not fall into that category. I'll try work some of his weak spots, if he does have any. I've got to see it in that way.

"A name is just a name. I've got to try and prove a point that I'm good as well."

After an eye-catching start to the season, Saili received a reality check when he was dropped to the bench last week. His coaches said it was so he could freshen up but he saw it differently.

"I looked at it as not taking my position for granted," he said. 

"I know I need to be in the mentality where I don't want anyone to take my jersey. It was a kind of attitude thing. I'm hungry to get back."

Centre isn't a natural role for Saili. He played second and first five-eighth for North Harbour this year and the largely untried midfield combination with Jackson Willison could be tested. New father Rene Ranger has shifted to the wing.

Aside from Smith, Saili will be on the look out for in-form wing Julian Savea.

"I know he's going to come around my corner a few times," he said. 

"I'll have to do my best to stop the bus. I'll try telling him to catch a taxi. If you give him confidence and momentum he's hard to stop."

Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Jackson Willison, Rene Ranger, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams, Culum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Albert Nikoro.

Fairfax Media