No place for Benji Marshall in the Blues squad
The Blues have called up the front-row firewpower to face the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Sunday morning (NZ time), but have found no room for celebrated off-season acquisition Benji Marshall in their match-day squad.
Coach Sir John Kirwan today confirmed three changes to the team that started the 35-24 victory over the Crusaders last week, with All Black veterans Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock set to make their first starts for the season in the front row.
Liaki Moli also comes back in to the second row to replace the impressive Patrick Tuipulotu who drops to the bench.The only other change in the reserves sees Chris Noakes come in for Marshall to cover the first five-eighth position.After giving his Blues and All Black centurions 30 minutes off the bench last week, Kirwan felt they were ready to form an all-international front row alongside Charlie Faumuina.
"Our young guns are coming through and getting better and better but to have the experience of an all-All Blacks front row is really important in Africa," Kirwan said.
"The Africans love scrumming, they're big men, so Kevvie and Woody are already looking forward to the challenge, and of course Charlie has been with us from the beginning and just continues to grow week by week.
"The scrum will be an important part of our game and we need to be at least competitive if not dominant there."
Kirwan cautioned not to read too much into Moli's selection ahead of Tuipulotu.
"Patrick had a really good first start last week but we just want to temper his growth and make sure we protect him a wee bit.
"Also Liaki is chomping at the bit and I think he is made for this type of game. It'll be a tough encounter and Patrick will come on in the second half."
The Blues backline is unchanged, with youngsters Simon Hickey and Tevita Li getting a deserved second chance after heady performances against the Crusaders.
"Simon played with great confidence last week," Kirwan said. "He shows a maturity beyond his age and he's tough enough. Nothing really flusters him, so he's got that maturity which I think is important for that position."
Kirwan accepted that Li would no doubt be peppered with high balls, but felt the 18-year-old would be equal to the challenge.
"He ignited us last week. He's got a feeling for the game that's quite special. He just seems to be one of those guys who pops up at the right place.
"He's really alert, really keen and just loves being out there so we need him to take that confidence into the game. It'll be a big game for him ... the Bulls will maul and they will kick high balls, so it'll be another type of game for him."
The Blues coach confirmed Marshall's omission, and the preference for Noakes to cover No 10, was down to the need for tactical acumen.
"Benji is obviously disappointed," Kirwan said. "We've got a programme for Benji and I've said I'm not going to rush it and it's really important that we slowly bring him into the game.
"But at some stage we need to just get him out there. It's important he's not known as the guy who comes on and solves the problems when we're down. He needs to be a part of this football team and we need to give him a start at some stage."
Kirwan was also pretty certain of the type of challenge the Bulls would present at their intimidating home fortress.
"The difference when you play Africa is the brutality of the contact - they're big men, and when they've got the ball they love the physicality of the rucks so they'll fly into them and you just need to be ready for that.
"They play a very simple game that they know very well - lots of mauling, lots of high kicks and lots of pressure underneath that so we just need to be ready and make sure we can combat that."
The Bulls have started the new season with two away defeats and a home victory last weekend, while the Blues are 1-1after following their Highlanders disappointment with a strong showing against the Crusaders.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, George Moala, Jackson Willison, Tevita Li, Simon Hickey, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid (capt), Steven Luatua, Tom Donnelly, Liaki Moli, Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu, Brendon O'Connor, Bryn Hall, Chris Noakes, Pita Ahki