Make or break for the Blues in South Africa
The Blues aren't looking at the negatives in Bloemfontein this week, but grasping the one lone positive that sees them decidedly buoyant for a team that's just had four straight defeats.
Somehow, largely thanks to a remarkable competition-high 12 bonus points, the Blues still have a chance to make Super Rugby playoffs, if they can win their last two games, starting with this weekend's trip to the Cheetahs in the early hours of Sunday morning (NZT).
Never mind the agonising 22-20 defeat to the Sharks in Durban last round, courtesy of a late try after the final hooter. Never mind the scrum woes that put the Blues under so much avoidable pressure. And never mind the injuries that have ruled out both first-choice halves, with Piri Weepu and Chris Noakes both back in Auckland doing their best to get ready for what they hope will be a live finale against the Chiefs at Eden Park.
All told coach Sir John Kirwan has made four changes to his line-up to take on the sixth-placed Cheetahs who lie just two points ahead of them on the table. Youngsters Jamison Gibson-Park and Baden Kerr come in for the crocked playmakers, while Rene Ranger returns on the left wing, for George Moala, and loosehead prop Sam Prattley is assigned with "trying to find solutions" in the problematic scrum.
Kirwan had full confidence in his young halves, and challenged them to cash in on the opportunity that had presented them.
"Leading and driving the game-plan around will be their challenge," Kirwan said last night. "Baden's strength is his kicking and we're up on the veld so he's stepped up this week and it's really just a matter of them getting over the nerves and playing a good game of footy.
"So it's a great test for them and a great opportunity for them to say 'yeah, I'm ready for this level'."
Ranger's selection on the wing might surprise some, but it does protect his at times shaky defence and Kirwan was keen to keep the midfield pairing of Francis Saili and Jackson Willison intact.
"They've got a pretty good combination and it's got a pretty good balance and we've given Rene a free licence on the wing to pop up wherever he wants," said the coach.
It had been a quiet week thus far for the Blues who were being given every chance to recover from a tough clash against the Sharks. But they understood the challenge ahead of them against a side gunning for the same playoff spot.
"They play pretty similar to us," said Kirwan. "Our big challenge will be to shore up our set piece. The lineout was fine last week, it was the scrum that cost us. In Africa if you give away that many penalties they kick to the corner and drive you.
"We need to work on our discipline and make sure we get our penalty count down and play more in their half. The boys know if we can hang on to the ball we're pretty dangerous.
"Everyone's excited about it, and we realise how big a game it is. It's come down to a couple of games so it's exciting the guys rather than worrying them.".
Meanwhile, Kirwan said it was "news to me" that Toulon were chasing the signature of his skipper Ali Williams, according to French newspaper reports. He said he would find time for a "yarn" over the next few days.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Jackson Willison, Francis Saili, Rene Ranger, Baden Kerr, Jamison Gibson-Park; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Anthony Boric, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Sam Prattley. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Culum Retallick, Brendon O'Connor, Wayne Ngaluafe, Marty McKenzie, George Moala.