Blues' Steven Luatua to miss Brumbies clash
If the Blues are going to maintain their place in Super Rugby's top six, they're going to have to do it this weekend without their most impressive performer in blindside flanker Steven Luatua.
The rising star of the New Zealand game and All Black in waiting has been left out of Sir John Kirwan's team to face the reeling Brumbies at Eden Park on Saturday night.
It's the first game Luatua has missed all season as he's provided a series of positive contributions to the team that has exceeded expectations with a 6-5 record, 41 competition points and sixth spot overall.
Luatua sustained a neck injury in last weekend's 23-3 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch and Kirwan did not want to risk his in-form No 6 when he wasn't 100 per cent.
"He banged up his neck last week and it just hasn't freed up," said Kirwan. "We felt he'd probably be playing at 80 percent so we'd like to put the athlete first. I made the decision. He's not very happy but I've taken him out of the team."
Kirwan said he would not have given his hard-working flanker a breather anyway and he expects him to return fully fit for next Saturday's visit to the Highlanders. Luatua sat out the physical aspects of the All Blacks training camp in Mount Maunganui earlier this week.
There are only two changes to Kirwan's starting line-up to face the Brumbies, despite the coach's concerns that his team had been off the mark in some pretty fundamental aspects of the game against the Crusaders.
Specialist openside Brendon O'Connor comes in at No 6 to form a flying squad with Luke Braid, while in the backline Francis Saili is returned to second five-eighths where Kirwan is looking for more "vision and verbals" from his young midfielder.
"Francis brought real excitement to the game when came on and he's been doing that. We need him to step up a bit with his vision and verbals, helping Noakesy (Chris Noakes) out and making sure he's making the right call. But if he can bring his excitement and his footwork we'll be really happy."
Impressive young tighthead prop Angus Ta'avao has also been bracketed as he deals with a knee injury sustained in training earlier in the week. Kirwan's hopeful he will be all right to face the Brumbies.
Hooker James Parsons returns to the bench after a spell out with a neck injury, while Kane Barrett comes in to take O'Connor's place as backup loose forward. Jackson Willison also drops to the reserves to make way for Saili.
Kirwan admitted it had been a difficult week, coming off the defeat in Christchurch, the loss of eight players to Steve Hansen's All Black camp for three days and then defence coach Sir Graham's controversial outburst about officialdom.
But the crux of the matter now was that the Blues had to be better than they were last week if they want to keep up their pursuit of a playoff spot.
"It's a team learning," said Kirwan. "There are things we've identified we need to get better at if we want to stay in the top six. We need to get better at some little things, like our kick-chase, and our decisions on finding the balance between running and kicking just needs to be refined.
"If we can take learnings out of last week and implement them this week then we'll be a better football side at learning how to create pressure besides just scoring tries which I think is an important growth for us."
The Brumbies come to Auckland having lost back to back matches for the first time this season, but still sitting second overall on the standings on 46 points.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Brendon O'Connor, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao/ Sam Prattley, Keven Mealamu, Tim Perry. Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley/Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Kane Barrett, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison.