Francis Saili ready to be centre of attention
Once again, the Blues midfield is in the spotlight.
The return of All Blacks second five-eighth Francis Saili was offset by the short-term loss of Jackson Willison yesterday.
Willison has been the Blues' most consistent midfielder this season. Moves from second-five to centre haven't bothered him and his short kicking game was instrumental in the bumbling win over the Cheetahs.
After successive wins for this first time this year, the Blues need to maintain momentum in Canberra on Friday, before next week's bye allows them time to recover from an injury crisis that's now stretched to 12 players.
From that perspective Willison's loss is significant, as is the injury-enforced demotion to the bench of captain Luke Braid, who has been replaced by Brendon O'Connor. Braid's battered body and shoulder complaint means Jerome Kaino will lead the troops in just his third match since returning from Japan.
Sir John Kirwan made positive noises about shifting George Moala from the wing to centre - outside Ma'a Nonu - to cover Willison's absence. In reality, though, the stopgap measure is not ideal.
Moala is best suited to the wing and could be exposed by the Brumbies' combative midfield duo. Second-five Pat McCabe showed against the Hurricanes how destructive his fearless impact can be, while Tevita Kuridrani needs no second invitation to punch a hole. Both players boast international experience and much will depend on Nonu's experience to mitigate the damage.
"I've seen the Brumbies footage, they're pretty good," Saili acknowledged. "I know they've got a strong midfield combination with Pat McCabe and Kuridrani. We know they're two key players we'll have to try shutdown."
Having been out for six weeks with a foot injury, Saili's return from the bench follows Kirwan's trend of slowly integrating his All Blacks. The same theory was favoured with Nonu, Kaino, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock.
"The foot is good. It's coming along really well. It's [being sidelined] frustrating but at the same time it brings you back to reality knowing that when the boys are playing well it's a challenge for you to come back and play even better," Saili said.
"I'm probably not ready for 80-minutes. I haven't done much running yet. The lungs will probably be feeling it more than my legs. I've got to start from the bottom and go from there."
Nonu's presence at second-five could force Saili to come on at centre, a role he's largely unfamiliar with. Particularly on defence the 13 jersey requires strong, definitive decision-making.
"I'm not too bad. I've played there before and I've played outside him [Nonu] too," the two-test All Black said. "I'm still learning the defensive roles as a 13. For me it's just about heading back to my book and seeing what I can to do improve in that position."
After a solid step-up against the Highlanders last week, the Blues must now prove they're good enough to win on the road. Losses in Dunedin, Pretoria and Johannesburg suggest there's reason for apprehension this week.
"If you want to be a contender you've got to win away from home at some stage and keep your home turf pretty sacred," Kirwan said. "The Brumbies were finalists last year. They're tough to crack over there so it's a huge challenge for us."
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, George Moala, Ma'a Nonu, Tevita Li, Simon Hickey, Bryn Hall, Steven Luatua, Brendon O'Connor, Jerome Kaino (c), Hayden Triggs, Liaki Moli, Charlie Faumuina, Tom McCartney, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Angus Ta'avao, Jordan Manihera, Luke Braid, Sonatane Takulua, Francis Saili, Benji Marshall.