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Preview: Blues v Waratahs

23rd April 2014 17:00

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Israel Folau Waratahs v Blues

Contained: Israel Folau

Dealing with off-field distractions and poor on-field performances, there's no respite for the Blues as they host the Waratahs on Friday.

Benji Marshall has left Auckland and Union behind nearly three months into the new season, but the Blues should forget about him swiftly. There are more important issues to handle.

Last week against the Hurricanes the effort levels of a squad packed with talent and international caps bordered on embarrassing.

Ma'a Nonu went AWOL, as did Tony Woodcock, players that the Blues need to provide more inspiration than they must think they offer by simply turning up.

Defensively the Blues were a shambles, particularly at the end of the second half, where with the game within their reach at 27-20, they burned out.

Offensively they lacked enough go-forward or spark to consistently trouble the 'Canes line, which is saying something against a team whose defence isn't exactly regarded as ironclad.

Picking Chris Noakes in an attempt to tactically outmanoeuvre the Hurricanes essentially turned into feeding their hosts possession, from which they finished with five tries and should have had six had it not been for the arm of Dane Coles scraping the touchline.

Defensive mistakes can be forgiven, just, but a lack of fight and obvious leadership from players this good is unacceptable. As a result the Blues are now eleventh, have won three of their eight matches and are only one point ahead of the Highlanders at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference - who have two games in hand.

The comments of Piri Weepu, who returns to the Blues bench for this week after his heart surgery, are telling.

"The boys need to look at themselves and make sure they're making the right calls when they look at themselves in the mirror," said Weepu.

"We've played about 20 minutes in total this year, of good footy.

"When you're playing in a Super comp like this that's not good enough, so I guess the boys just need to figure out what they want to do as individuals for this team and everyone's got to get on the same page."

Working as a group isn't an issue for the Waratahs. Michael Cheika's side bounced back from tough losses to the Western Force and Sharks by taking down the Bulls on their return to Sydney last weekend.

It took Israel Folau all of 28 seconds to mark his return to the side with his ninth try of the season, proving how much the 'Tahs have missed him.

In the week that Marshall left Union it's worth noting just how ground-breaking Folau has been.

He gives the Waratahs an extra edge that other teams lack - and that's the difference between your average Super Rugby side and a title contender.

The Waratahs are far from the finished product but sit one point off the top of a competitive Australian Conference. Statistically they are one of the best attacking teams in the competition.

If there is a weakness in their game it lies in the scrum, which holds only an 80 percent success rate, but that is still better than the Blues' 77 percent.

What has been so pleasing about the Waratahs is how individual players have raised their game. Will Skelton and Jacques Potgeiter are huge physical specimens that do not lack skill. Bernard Foley has made the fly-half jersey his own.

If the 'Tahs are serious contenders, then matches such as these against a misfiring Blues outfit should be targeted for maximum points.

Form: The Blues have lost their last two matches either side of their bye week, after achieving back-to-back wins in Rounds 6 and 7. The Waratahs began the season with two wins in a row but haven't repeated that feat since.

Previous results:

2013: Waratahs won 30-27 in Sydney
2011: Blues won 26-13 in Auckland
2011: Blues won 31-17 in Auckland
2010: Waratahs won 39-32 in Sydney

Prediction: Given how the Blues have been uncontrollably shipping points in recent weeks, a Waratahs victory and by some distance with a try for Folau seems an obvious call. Waratahs by ten.

The teams:

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Lolagi Visinia, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Steven Luatua, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Pita Ahki.

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Crawford, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis (c), 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Pat McCutcheon, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Matt Carraro, 24 Stephen Hoiles.

Date: Friday, April 25
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 17:35 (local, 05:35 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)

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PosTeamPPts
1Crusaders1651
2Chiefs1644
3Highlanders1642
4Hurricanes1641
5Blues1637