The Brumbies have the opportunity to move clear in the Australian conference, at least for 24 hours, when they face the Blues on Friday.
Locked on 39 points apiece with the Waratahs, the battle for a place in the play-offs is warming nicely ahead of this penultimate round.
The ‘Tahs host the Hurricanes on Saturday while next weekend the Brumbies host the Force and the Sydney side head to Auckland themselves. Weighing up those games there is a feeling the Brumbies are favourites to progress, but the Blues will argue they can beat both visitors.
Tana Umaga’s team, while on a two-game losing run, have been much improved from 2015 and possess a back-row that rivals plenty in Super Rugby. Jerome Kaino scored twice last week, Steven Luatua has been impressing over the past two months while Kara Pryor has an X factor.
Factor in the Brumbies missing David Pocock and now Ben Hyne as their number eight options, then this is an area the Blues should target.
It promises to be a tight match as the last three meetings between the Blues and the Brumbies have seen just 33 points scored per game on average. Furthermore the Blues’ last six home games have all been won by margins of eight points or fewer so expect it to go to the wire.
The Brumbies will of course take a win whichever way it comes but after going down at this very venue last year by two points, they know just how tough it is to win at Eden Park. They need everyone to perform as they take on a side under no pressure, which is a dangerous thing.
Win and the Brumbies will surely head home with the tag of Australia’s regular-season top dog within their fingertips. Incentive right there.
The last time the teams met: It was the Blues who came out on top, winning 16-14 in Auckland to end a run of seven successive defeats that opened their season. Daniel Bowden was the star of the show, scoring a try, conversion and two penalties before Ihaia West slotted a late match-winning penalty. In reply the Brumbies’ only try came via Lausii Taliauli while Christian Leali’ifano kicked nine points off the tee.
Players to watch: Kara Pryor was superb last week against the Hurricanes as he showed the masses just how dynamic a flanker he is. Pryor’s rapid pace saw him race over for a score. He was everywhere at Eden Park, linking up well with the in-form Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua.
For the Brumbies the return of Tomás Cubelli at scrum-half will concern the Blues. Benched last week as Joe Powell was given a start – he performed admirably – Cubelli came on and scored against the Reds. Such a dangerous runner and will be crucial to the Brumbies’ title hopes.
Team news: The Blues will take an unchanged side into their penultimate Super Rugby match of the season. The front-row is Ofa Tu’ungafasi, captain James Parsons and Sam Prattley while Jerome Kaino, who scored a double last week, continues alongside Steven Luatua and Kara Pryor. Josh Bekhius is bracketed with Scott Scrafton, as is Male Sa’u with Matt Vaega. Bryn Hall and Ihaia West continue as the half-back pairing.
Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham has made two changes to his starting side. Former Australian Sevens representative, Michael Wells, has been named to start his first Super Rugby game, replacing the injured Ben Hyne, while Tomás Cubelli is at scrum-half, replacing Joe Powell.
Form: The Blues have lost their last two games, going down at home to the Crusaders and away to the Hurricanes. However, they have been in much better form than previous years as they have claimed six wins and a draw in their 13 games. Let’s not forget they’ve had a tough draw.
The Brumbies were too good for the Reds last time out as they ran in six tries in a 43-24 win. That result followed a 66-5 victory over the Sunwolves and before that they won 30-22 at the Rebels and 23-6 at home to the Bulls. They seem to be hitting form at just the right time.
Prediction: It will be close and with home field advantage the Blues will push throughout. The Brumbies though should sneak this by three.
2015: Blues won 16-14 in Auckland
2014: Brumbies won 26-9 in Canberra
2013: Brumbies won 20-13 in Auckland
2012: Blues won 30-16 in Canberra
2010: Blues won 39-34 in Auckland
2009: Brumbies won 37-15 in Canberra
2008: Brumbies won 16-11 in Auckland
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Male Sa’u/Matt Vaega, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis/Scott Scrafton, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt Vaega/Michael Little, 23 Lolagi Visinia
Brumbies: 15 Aidan Toua, 14 Nigel Ah Wong, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Matt Toomua, 11 James Dargaville, 10 Christian Lealiifano (c), 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 Allan Alaalatoa, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Blake Enever, 20 Tom Staniforth, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Andrew Smith, 23 Lausii Taliauli
Date: Friday, July 8
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Jamie Nutbrown
TMO: Shame McDermott