Huge challenge ahead of the Blues in Durban
The Blues have got their challenges, it's fair to say, as they prepare for the weekend's sudden-death Super Rugby clash against the Sharks in Durban.
It's a match Sir John Kirwan's team must win to keep their top-six hopes alive as the competition heads into its final three rounds, but the Blues have been presented with less than ideal circumstances leading into such a pivotal game for their season.
For starters, they've had two key All Blacks arrive late after being granted some much-needed family time following the series against France. Veteran hooker Keven Mealamu only landed in Durban on Tuesday night (local time) - 24 hours after the main contingent from the national team - and in-form utility back Rene Ranger on Wednesday evening.
Both will come off the bench for the Blues because of the team's travel protocols and the limited preparation they have had leading into the game.
Lock Culum Retallick was also struck down with a virus that saw him laid low for three days and bracketed on the bench for the game early Sunday (NZ time). The starting XV contains the four remaining All Black squad members.
Then there's the external issues confronting the Kiwi hopefuls.
The Sharks sacked their New Zealand coach John Plumtree this week and Kirwan believes the dismissal, which he tagged "disappointing for rugby", would provide a spur for the South Africans as they look to keep their own unlikely playoff hopes alive.
Last but not least there's the Nelson Mandela situation in the republic, which not only has the nation "on hold" but has also raised the prospect of a 10-day official mourning period throwing into doubt any sporting fixtures over that time.
"We've had a little bit of notification," said Kirwan of the potential Mandela grieving period. "Obviously it's one of those things people don't want to talk about. They don't want to pre-empt the great man passing. But there is a 10-day mourning period.
"They're hoping he comes out of this condition, but if he doesn't we just need to be ready for what happens."
Kirwan had dinner with sacked Sharks coach Plumtree on Wednesday night, and he had no doubt what sort of effect the change at the top of the team's leadership would have.
"It's a very disappointing time for rugby," said Kirwan. "We're not soccer. I've been through what he's going through, he's a great New Zealander, a good man, and he's hurting a bit. I'm sure the Sharks will be playing for him. It's added to the spice of things."
In terms of his own team's issues, Kirwan was confident he had a team capable of rising to the challenge, and ending a three-game losing skid.
"We've got the strongest side we can out there," said Kirwan. "From a recovery point of view Kevvy and Rens need those days and they'll be very influential for us in the second half. We've had to play a strategic game with the side.
"It was really important that these guys (Mealamu and Ranger) got home after they'd been with the All Blacks so today will be our first training run together since the players left," Kirwan said.
"It's probably not the ideal preparation but we've planned for it and we understood how it was going to be. The boys are really excited and refreshed so that has compensated for it."
And Kirwan said his side were embracing the nature of a game that will double as skipper Ali Williams' 100th for the franchise.
"It's a test match for us and the guys are very excited about that. We understand the importance of it. It feels a little bit like the beginning of the season, and hopefully the game is a bit like that.
"The guys are really excited, they've come together really well. We've been chatting all week about how important this game is for our season."
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Jackson Willison, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Anthony Boric, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Tim Perry. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Kane Barrett/Culum Retallick, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Rene Ranger.
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