The Blues will be hoping to end a ten-game losing streak against the Sharks when they host them at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday.
There is a sense that head coach Tana Umaga is building something better in Auckland in 2016. Two wins and a draw from their six outings is already a huge improvement from their 2015 campaign, where they avoided the wooden spoon by one point.
The Blues attack is much improved behind a sturdy forward base set by the likes of the hard-working Charlie Faumuina, allowing the backline to give the ball some air.
This is reflected in the statistics, as the three-time champions average over 160 passes a game, ranking them third in the competition.
This attack faces a side with one of the top defences this year. The Sharks have conceded just two second-half tries this season which is the result of having the highest tackling percentage of any team.
However, one aspect where the Durban-based franchise has been poor is at line-out time, where they are ranked second from the bottom. Coming from a team that is fond of putting boot to ball, that is unacceptable and will have to improve if the Sharks want to win on Saturday.
There is much on the line for both teams, as a Blues win will be further proof of their improvement under a new coach. For Gary Gold’s men, a victory in the first game of an arduous tour where they face the Highlanders and Chiefs, would go a long way.
The last time the two teams met: The conference system made sure the teams did not meet last year, so back to 2014 we go. The Sharks were coming off a confidence boosting 14-man win over the Crusaders in Christchurch and took that form into the next week, edging the Blues 29-23 in Albany. However, little can be taken from this result as much of the Sharks’ personnel has changed since, and the same can be said of the Blues.
Players to watch: The tactical kicking game will be important against a strong defensive team such as the Sharks. As such, full-back Lolagi Visinia and pivot Ihaia West will be under the spotlight at Eden Park.
On the counter-attack, Rene Ranger is certainly capable of busting tackles and making a freak offload, so the Sharks will have to be aware when he has ball in hand.
For the visitors, lock Stephan Lewies will be looking to solve their line-out problems. Flanker Jean-Luc du Preez continues to impress with his high workload around the park while Willie le Roux, who has had a quiet season by his standards, can inject some life into the back three if given the chance.
Team news: The Blues arrive back home in Auckland looking rather settled, with Umaga making just two changes to the side that lost to the Chiefs last week.
Lolagi Visinia returns from injury to replace Melani Nanai while flanker Tanerau Latimer could debut for the Blues if he passes a late fitness test. Otherwise, Kara Pryor will come off the bench.
Meanwhile the Sharks’ Philip van der Walt will have massive shoes to fill as he replaces the injured Marcell Coetzee, who suffered a seemingly innocuous blow last week that will see him miss the rest of the season.
Staying with the forward pack, prop Lourens Adriaanse moves Coenie Oosthuizen to the bench after the latter struggled at scrum-time against the Lions. Finally, lock Stephan Lewies returns from injury to partner with Etienne Oosthuizen.
Form: Since opening the competition with a win over the defending champions, there has been little to write home about for the Umaga’s men. A 25-all draw against the lowly Reds was a missed opportunity, though they did bounce back with a win over a depleted Jaguares outfit in Round Six. Added to that, they can take much confidence from their narrow defeat to the table topping Chiefs last week.
A season that started with so much promise has come to a grinding halt for the Sharks. A draw and two losses has seen them gain just three points from three games. A disastrous showing last week against the Lions in Durban was punctuated with handling errors and scrum penalties as well of the loss of their superstar flank Coetzee, creating an especially bitter pill to swallow for their fans.
Prediction: While history has a habit of repeating itself, the Sharks' recent form and the Blues’ quiet resurgence suggests the visitors are in for a battle royale at Eden Park. Blues to sneak it by 3.
2014: Sharks won 29-23 in Albany
2013: Sharks won 22-20 in Durban
2012: Sharks won 29-23 in Auckland
2011: Sharks won 26-12 in Durban
2010: Sharks won 23-10 in Durban
2009: Sharks won 35-31 in Auckland
2008: Sharks won 22-17 in Durban
2007: Sharks won 34-18 in Durban
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Tanerau Latimer or Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hoani Matenga, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Kara Pryor or Joe Edwards, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 George Moala
Sharks: 15 Willie Le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Daniel du Preez, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c)
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane
Date: Saturday, April 16
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert, Paul Williams
TMO: Ben Skeen
by Doug Mattushek