Mealamu looks to lift bruised Blues

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 26/02/2014

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Not so much the cavalry as Dad's Army, but veteran All Black hooker Keven Mealamu says he and Tony Woodcock have an obligation to lift the sagging Blues for Friday's visit by the Crusaders.

In an early dance of the desperates, the winless sides from week one will be seeking to avoid a 0-2 start to Super Rugby when they meet at Eden Park.

For the Blues, an early tight spot is exacerbated by a worrying injury list out of their 21-29 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin, with All Black Francis Saili (foot) and skipper Luke Braid (ankle) both likely out for Friday, Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino still unavailable, and a cast of others carrying knocks of various descriptions.

After standing the Highlanders a 24-0 start via a witless first half, the Blues have plenty to address out of their first-up effort and the staged return of Mealamu and fellow test and Super Rugby centurion Woodcock will at least add some experience.

''We want to come back and perform, so we put the pressure on ourselves,'' Mealamu said of the high stakes.

''We've been given an opportunity to get into good nick and now it's about making sure we transfer that on to the rugby field. We're pretty excited to get out there.''

Mealamu is acutely aware that the Blues were well short of the mark in Dunedin. They had 573 running metres (nearly 200 more than their opponents) and forced the Highlanders to make a mammoth 174 tackles - yet left themselves with too much to do after a halftime tune-up.

Considering that the Crusaders have their own issues after a profligate opening effort against the Chiefs, it shapes as a pretty interesting clash between two teams with some big statements to make.

''I know it's early in the campaign, but we're both desperate for points and we definitely want to make sure we put out a good performance,'' Mealamu said.

The early attrition also adds to the speculation around senior New Zealand players not being big fans of the double ''derby'' round, and its associated physical toll.

Mealamu was reluctant to dive into that issue this week, but did say the physical toll was a big part of the all-Kiwi affairs.

''I think all around New Zealand at the moment there are a few sore bodies. It's early in the campaign, everyone's feeling fit and strong and everyone is willing to chuck that much more at the game. It's pretty physical at this point.''

Meanwhile, Blues and All Black fullback Charles Piutau was confident that  continued knee problems would not keep him out on Friday.

With coach Sir John Kirwan confirming Piutau was being looked at to play centre at some stage - though not this week - the 22-year-old admitted that the positional shift held appeal after dabbling there in club rugby.

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''I'm open to it,'' he said.

''It's something new, and I won't really know how I feel until I try it out. It's real different to the outside backs, there's a lot more happening in front and more contact, and I enjoy that.''

The Blues will name their team to face the Crusaders today, with Brendon O'Connor expected to replace Braid on the flank and fit-again Pita Ahki to replace Saili at centre.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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