The Hurricanes will be keen to avoid any slip-ups against the Blues as they look to close the gap on either the Chiefs or Crusaders on Saturday.
Before the latter mentioned duo’s fixture in Fiji on Friday, it’s the Crusaders (45) who currently lead the race in New Zealand, with the Chiefs on 42 points and the ‘Canes 40. While the trio are good bets to make the last-eight, top spot in the conference is what they crave.
What makes this game that bit more intriguing is that the Blues’ season is also far from over, as they are still mathematically in with a shout of sneaking into the play-offs. They are on 30 points with the Sharks (35) who they are aiming for with just three rounds remaining.
Being in the shake-up at this stage of the season must surely be viewed as a positive campaign for the Blues in Tana Umaga’s first year in charge. They have won six, drawn one and lost five in 2016 with fewer frailties in their game evident as talent such as the Ioanes emerge.
However, this week they come up against other players in fantastic form as Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles go straight back into their team after their All Black outings. Ardie Savea is also confident and refreshed after a weekend off and he could have a big say on this result.
Factor in the Hurricanes having won their last three games against the Blues and it’s no surprise many are predicting a home win. But it’s worth noting that they have never won four on the bounce against their conference rival and the Blues have rarely rolled over this season.
Should they cause an upset then the aforementioned prospect of the Blues making the play-offs would be very much on, as home games against the Brumbies and Waratahs round out their season. Indeed that final clash with the ‘Tahs in Auckland could well be winner-take-all.
First though it’s about stopping Barrett and the ‘Canes as we’re set up then for a titanic tussle in Wellington. If their clash earlier in the season is anything to go by, this could go down to the wire as these two sides strive for firmer footing heading into the penultimate round of 2016.
The last time these teams met: After two defeats, the Round Three triumph was much-needed for the Hurricanes as they held on for a 23-19 victory at Eden Park. Victor Vito and TJ Perenara (2) scored their tries while Rene Ranger and George Moala crossed for the Blues, with Beauden Barrett kicking one conversion and two penalty goals to Ihaia West’s three penalties. West crucially missed four shots at goal.
Players to watch: He was in excellent form when New Zealand needed him in June and there was no chance of head coach Chris Boyd resting Beauden Barrett in their return to Super Rugby action, despite Tana Umaga’s hopes. Barrett carved Wales to pieces at times and the Blues must be wary of his running game on Saturday. Of course keep a look out for the talented Ardie Savea as he continues to grow as a player.
For the Blues they need big games from Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua and Patrick Tuipulotu if they are to spring a shock in Wellington. Lock Tuipulotu has the potential to be a dominant force not just in Super Rugby but in the international game and big performances against New Zealand rivals will do his reputation no harm at all. The Blues need him at his carrying best and he’s not shy of a delicate offload too.
Team news: The Hurricanes’ five All Blacks will start with just one change to the line-up that beat the Highlanders before the Test break. Other than lock Vaea Fifita, it is the same run-on XV that played on May 27 with Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett, Ardie Savea, Julian Savea and TJ Perenara fit and ready to resume their Super Rugby duties. Fifita replaces Blade Thomson who suffered a dislocated shoulder in training.
Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Male Sa’u return to the Blues line-up. Kaino, Tu’ungafasi and Tuipulotu were involved with New Zealand’s series against Wales while Sa’u played for Japan against Scotland. Charlie Faumuina and George Moala are both ruled out.
Form: The Hurricanes have won their last two games, against the Reds and Highlanders, with a bye week sandwiched in between those results. Meanwhile the Blues have lost two of their last three matches, most recently going down 26-21 to the Crusaders in a tough loss in Auckland.
Prediction: With the form Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles and Ardie Savea are currently in it’s hard to look past the hosts. Hurricanes by 12.
2016: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 29-5 in Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 30-23 in Palmerston North
2014: Blues won 37-24 in Auckland
2014: Hurricanes won 39-20 in Wellington
2013: Blues won 28-6 in Auckland
2013: Blues won 34-20 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 35-19 in Wellington
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reggie Goodes
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Tony Lambourn, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Willis Halaholo, 23 Jason Woodward
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Male S’au, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti/Hoani Matenga, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Matt Vaega/Lolagi Visinia
Date: Saturday, July 2
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)