Kirwan stands by his man Hickey at first-five
For now, at least, Simon Hickey is the Blues best first five-eighth.
That much coach Sir John Kirwan finally confirmed yesterday by reinstating the rookie, omitting Chris Noakes from the squad and dropping Benji Marshall to the bench to face the Cheetahs at Eden Park tomorrow.
It has taken until the Blues' fifth match but Kirwan has shelved the trial selection policy which already saw four changes in the 10 jersey.
"I kind of expected that," Hickey said. "Especially being a younger player, if you don't perform, then you don't expect to play. That's a good way to keep the team firing. I'm comfortable with that."
No-one will feel entirely comfortable, though, with Kirwan declaring he will stick to his week-to-week strategy.
"I'm going to pick on-form and he's in-form at the moment," Kirwan said of his now favoured first-five.
Selected from the wider training group, Hickey appeared assured in two starts against the Crusaders and Bulls, before being surprisingly dropped last week. Other than one glaring missed tackle in Pretoria, where he kicked a flawless 18-points, he couldn't have done much more to retain his place.
"He didn't do anything to get out of the team. We were just trying to protect him a wee bit," Kirwan said. "He came on last week and showed some spark. He deserves the run-on this week."
Fit-again pivot Baden Kerr may yet mount a challenge butfor now 20-year-old Hickey is easily the best option to guide the Blues' star-studded backline. And Kirwan seems to be warming to giving him a decent, prolonged chance to direct his charges out of their poor start to the season.
In what will be a frenetic, fast-paced encounter against the hectic Cheetahs, Hickey will need a cool head. His electric outsides need guidance about when to unleash their natural instincts.
Early nerves at his swift promotion are slipping away with every match. From this point, Hickey is only likely to grow in stature.
"I feel a bit more confident directing the ship," he said. "A first-five has to be a loud person. I feel confident I can do that. I certainly didn't expect this much game-time coming into this season but I'm loving it.
"There have been quite a few changes but this is the same backline we played with against the Crusaders."
Needing a win to ease pressure and stay in finals contention, Kirwan's decision to bench Marshall was understandable. In his first start, the league convert had a solid showing in the defeat to the Lions – his try offering a glimpse of the unique skills he possesses with ball in hand.
Marshall, though, still has much to learn from a positional sense. That will come only with time. And he still has the responsibility of covering first-five and fullback from the bench.
"Playing fullback, he's seen a lot more," Kirwan said of Marshall. "Now he's covering two positions that's a special thing to have on the bench. He'll have to do a bit of extra work looking at the maps and patterns but I'm confident he'll do that."
Returning Charles Piutau to fullback, where his thirst for work and ability to produce moments of genius, is also prudent. The standout All Blacks rookie last year, Piutau's game is already reaching new levels, though a stint at centre would only enhance his growth.
Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, George Moala, Jackson Willison, Tevita Li, Simon Hickey, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid (c), Steven Luatua, Tom Donnelly, Liaki Moli, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Tom McCartney, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Jerome Kaino, Hayden Triggs, Bryn Hall, Ma'a Nonu, Benji Marshall