Traditional Canes, Blues rivalry stirs passion
There is something about matches between the Hurricanes and Blues and tonight's match has the ingredients to be a memorable occasion.
It's not just because both teams badly need this win as they seek self-confidence and belief as the season nears its mid-point.
For the Hurricanes, a fifth straight win would entrench their place in the top six and provide coach Mark Hammett with concrete evidence their flaky tendencies are a thing of the past.
The Blues will fear a loss that would water the seeds of doubt coach John Kirwan has fought so hard to stamp out.
The tactical landscape is clear. Derby rematches prompt rethinks as coaches try to present a different picture to their opponents.
The Hurricanes have shifted Beauden Barrett back to fullback and installed Tusi Pisi's calm head and robust shoulder at first five- eighth.
It's a message to the Blues that the channel they exploited during their round one win is closed for business.
It also suggests the Hurricanes want to kick long out of defence, in order to both blunt and tempt the counter attacking flair of Charles Piutau, Frank Halai and Rene Ranger.
Getting isolated with Ardie Savea on the chase is not a great idea and the young openside will provide a plot line all of his own as he looks to follow up his debut on a bigger stage. Kirwan has had no such luxuries due to injury and suspension. He has picked his best side and will hope they can impose their energy and enthusiasm on the contest.
Barrett might expect some early up-and-unders but ball in hand will be the Blues motto against a Hurricanes side whose defence turns on and off like the Auckland weather.
There are matchups across the park. The future meets the present at halfback where T J Perenara faces the standard-setting Piri Weepu.
Two rising blindsides clash in Brad Shields and Steven Luatua, both big, raw-boned body movers, and No 8s Faifili Levave and Peter Saili bruisers.
Out wide Julian Savea and Frank Halai are man mountains, Rene Ranger a game changer and Alapati Leiua a thief in the night.
It's head-spinning stuff but one wonders if defence and set piece might ironically decide this match. The Chiefs suffocated the Blues in Hamilton where they hustled their attack out of the match and stifled their flair.
They also dominated the set piece and the clearance of prop Ben Franks, and hooker Dane Coles on the bench, is a boost to the Hurricanes.
Both sides can counter-attack but it's from set piece stability that the Hurricanes are most dangerous.
This is a clash that brings out the best in both teams, a big brother-little brother extension of the Auckland-Wellington provincial rivalry.
For those from Wellington, Auckland remains the big smoke of rugby. Eden Park is the home of rugby.
Auckland's dominance of the 1990s lingers. Names such as Jonah Lomu, Carlos Spencer, Michael Jones, and Zinzan Brooke spring to mind.
Polynesian flair sprinkles both sides.
John Kirwan had pizzazz too. It's limited to his clothes these days but his intention to bring back the excitement has been evident from round one.
A year ago, Conrad Smith played captain fantastic when he linked with Barrett to stab a dagger in the Blues hearts and steal a 26-25 away win.
In 20 matches since 1996 the Blues have won 12 and lost seven with a solitary draw.
The average score has been 29-24.
A similarly enthralling scoreline would not surprise.
HOW THEY LINE UP
Blues v Hurricanes
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
TV: Sky Sport 1, 7.35pm tonight
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SA)
TAB odds: Blues $1.75 Hurricanes $2
Hurricanes: Beauden Barrett, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Tusi Pisi, TJ Perenara, Faifili Levave, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Jason Eaton, Mark Reddish, Ben May, Motu Matu'u, Ben Franks. Reserves: Dane Coles, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, James Broadhurst, Jack Lam, Chris Smylie, Reynold Lee-Lo, Andre Taylor.
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Jackson Willison, Rene Ranger, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Calum 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
The Dominion Post