SA tour offers buoyant Blues with a launch pad

BIT BY BIT: Blues and All Blacks flanker Steven Luatua says his side has learnt how to get a winning feel about themselves.
BIT BY BIT: Blues and All Blacks flanker Steven Luatua says his side has learnt how to get a winning feel about themselves.

Not so long ago the long-haul trip to Pretoria held much trepidation for any Super Rugby team.

This week, that should not be the case for the buoyant Blues.

The reality is the three-time champion Bulls are not the formidable foes they once were. These days they are vulnerable.

Over half the Bulls starting team from last year has departed. Any side would struggle to fill such a void.

With the dwindling rand unable to compete with lucrative overseas salaries, and the Springboks opening the floodgates by selecting from abroad, the Bulls lost eight internationals.

This two-match stretch, which sees the Blues take on the improving but limited Lions down the road in Johannesburg next week, presents one of the more favourable tours to South Africa in recent times.

Indeed, it offers a launching pad for the season.

There's every reason to suggest the Blues are capable of coming home with a 3-1 record.

"Winning is a habit," Blues and All Blacks flanker Steven Luatua said. "We know what that feeling is like now. We'd like to gain 10 points over here which would set us up for the season, but we'll try take down the Bulls first."

The firepower Sir John Kirwan's lethal back-three displayed in the rousing comeback win over the Crusaders last week is nothing the Bulls have confronted this year.

Home comforts at Loftus Versfeld were just enough to sneak the Bulls past the Lions for their first win of the season last week. But the once-vaunted venue can no longer be considered a fortress for this team.

Contrasting tactics are a given. The Bulls have been predictable for over a decade. Their static game is based around physically dominating opponents upfront, controlling the set-piece battle, kicking for territory and accumulating points via the boot.

While Blues wings Frank Halai and Tevita Li had Eden Park in raptures last week, they are sure to be tested under the high ball. The visitors will need to at least gain party at scrum time and fix up their shoddy lineout, with veteran ball-winner Victor Matfield sure to be poring over footage.

But as Luatua explains, weather permitting there are also no secrets to the Blues approach, either.

Striking a balance between the expressive, individual brilliance that blew away the Crusaders and earning the right to go wide by making hard-earned metres around the fringes will be a must.

"That's the plan," he said. "If we have to get into a kicking dual then so be it, but pound for pound if we can get guys like Frank Halai and Tevita Li one-on-one with their opponents they can get around them.

"Especially against the South African teams you have to play a fast style of game. We want to go away from their mauls, go away from their lineouts. That's what they like to do. Expect us to keep the ball in play as long as we can.

"A lot of people think we run the ball out too much from our own half but I've got full confidence in the guys that make those choices. We're not going to question them."

Against a typically large South African pack, Kirwan may be tempted to hand All Blacks front-rowers Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu their first starts this year. Few other changes are expected.

Fairfax Media