No razzle-dazzle in Blues game plan in Pretoria
Last week he witnessed the raw excitement of his young Blues squad; this week Sir John Kirwan wouldn’t mind his viewing pleasure being a little more on the staid side.
‘‘It’s not a bad thing to be boring sometimes, is it?’’ said Kirwan about what he’d like to see in tomorrow’s Super Rugby clash against the Bulls at what should be a soggy Loftus Versfeld.
‘‘We’ve got to be able to grind African sides. They’re going to be really physical. We know how they’re going to play but they’re brilliant at it, and it’s important we tick off those boxes.
‘‘We know they’re going to drive the maul, so we need to be really tough in there and stop that. We know they’re going to kick it over the top, so our high-ball catch needs to be superb, and we need to get back and protect that ball, and then play a little bit of field position and try to put them under pressure.’’ This is where the true test lies for this emerging Blues outfit who demonstrated palpably at Eden Park last Friday night just what they’re capable of.
After standing the Crusaders a 17-3 start, the Blues exploded to take the game away from the seven-time champions with some quite brilliant football, especially from a backline featuring a debutant at first five (Simon Hickey), and a teenaged tyro (Tevita Li) on the left wing.
Last week it was razzle-dazzle that sat the Crusaders on their backsides and left them winless after two games; this week Kirwan is sure it is going to take a different set of qualities to secure victory at the Bulls’ intimidating home venue.
‘‘Part of our growth as a rugby team is to make sure we can grind games out,’’ Kirwan added. ‘‘It’s going to be a very difficult week, this is a very hard place to win, they do a lot of mauling, a lot of kicking over the top, and it’s going to be amplified by the wet weather.
‘‘We need to play with composure and grit this week. We need a good tactical kicking game and we need to meet them physically up front. It’s a completely different game to last week.’’ The weather, the odd niggle and the nature of the opposition has seen Kirwan tinker slightly with his lineup. The starting backline stays intact after an electric performance; but up front test centurions Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu get their first starts of the year, Kirwan figuring their warrior mentality being just what his team requires.
Towering lock Patrick Tuipulotu also swaps places with Liaki Moli this week and returns to the bench. Part of that is down to the 21-year-old being a little banged up from the Crusaders game, and part of it is Kirwan’s desire to see him come on after halftime and make an impact.
This shapes as an interesting test not just of the Blues’ resolve – for they’ll surely need plenty of that – but also their ability to win playing a different style of game.
The weather and the opposition will likely conspire to limit the Blues’ backline opportunities. Their challenge is to prove they’re no longer the one-dimensional outfit that struggles for a Plan B.
Kirwan has full faith in Hickey backing up his spectacular effort against the Crusaders – but has Chris Noakes in for Benji Marshall on the bench as an insurance policy. Likewise he’s backing Li to come through what’s sure to be an aerial bombardment down his wing.
‘‘[Skipper] Luke Braid stood up during the week and said the intensity of a derby like the Crusaders is incredible to play in, but this is a very different intensity. They’re very physical, they’ll fly into stuff, and you need to be ready for that. African sides like a slower game so we need to control the rhythm. It’s a big ask.’’ Kickoff is 4.05am tomorrow (NZ time), with Bulls wing Akona Ndungane set to earn his 100th Super Rugby cap.
BULLS: Jurgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Francois Hougaard; Jono Ross, Jacques du Plessis, Deon Stegmann, Victor Matfield, Flip van der Merwe (capt), Werner Kruger, Callie Visagie, Dean Greyling. Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Morné Mellett, Marcel van der Merwe, Paul Willemse, Jacques Engelbrecht, Piet van Zyl, Handré Pollard, Ulrich Beyers.
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.