Preview: Blues v Reds

01st May 2014, 18:20

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Centre of attention: Quade Cooper

Centre of attention: Quade Cooper

The Blues have blown hot and cold this year but will fancy their chances at Eden Park on Friday against a struggling Reds outfit.

The Blues have blown hot and cold this season but will fancy their chances at Eden Park on Friday against a struggling Reds outfit.

The Reds have won their last four matches against the Blues and have limited the New Zealand side to fewer than 14 points in their last three.

But on current form, the Blues - who are unbeaten at home this season - must be considered the favourites for a game the hosts have to win to keep up with the pace in an ultra-competitive New Zealand conference.

Indeed, going into Round 12 the Blues sit at the bottom of their conference with the five Kiwi teams separated by just 6 points. Defeat this weekend is likely to see Sir John Kirwan's side's play-off hopes take a serious knock.

The headlines this week have surrounded the Reds however as Wallaby fly-half Quade Cooper will reach a career milestone with his 100th cap for the 2011 champions. Cooper proved the match-winner when the teams met last season, kicking all his team's points in a 12-11 victory.

Such a slender scoreline is unlikely to be repeated on Friday though as the Blues in particular have some devastating runners in their back division.

Charles Piutau is a perfect example. He beats an average of over 3 defenders per game and has racked up 687 metres this season, second only to Cheetahs wizard Willie le Roux.

Cooper himself hovers near the top of the stats for both offloads and defenders beaten and you can count on him to put on a show on the special occasion. No side has conceded more tries than the Blues (7) in the opening quarter of matches this season so expect 'Cooperman' to try his luck early on.

Interestingly, the stats suggest the set pieces might be influential. The Reds have scored nine tries from line-out possession this year, five more than the Blues.

The Blues have lost more scrums (1.7) per game than any other side so far with their meagre success rate (80 percent) a worry considering the players at their disposal. Keven Mealamu's return to an all-All Black front row should help steady the ship.

Conversely the Reds have lost fewer scrums per game (0.8) than any other side so far, with their success rate the second best in the league (89 percent). Greg Holmes is back at tighthead prop, with Ben Daley moving to the bench and James Slipper shifting to loosehead. Watch the front-row battle closely.

Reds coach Richard Graham has reacted the lacklustre performance against the Hurricanes by making a total of four changes as Rod Davies and Anthony Fainga'a also return to boost the visitors backline.

"We've made the changes based on performance but also on the team we're playing," said Graham.

"Their scrum is very experienced with an All Blacks front row. We have made the appropriate changes we feel necessary to give us a strong platform in the early stages.

Liam Gill is also back for the first time since injuring his hamstring five weeks ago and will start at openside flanker.

The Blues, meanwhile, have made only one change as Luke Braid misses out through injury and Brendan O'Connor takes his place, with Peter Saili switching to the blindside and Jerome Kaino slotting in at number eight.

One has to question why Saili is being played out of position when All Black flanker Steven Luatua remains on the bench.

Form: The Reds have lost their last three games and have only won once in their last six fixtures. Their only success on the road this season came in Canberra against the Brumbies way back in Round 2. The Blues are coming off a morale-boosting win over the Waratahs last week. They are unbeaten at Eden Park this season.

Previous results:
2013: Reds won 12-11 in Brisbane
2012: Reds won 23-11 in Auckland
2011: Reds won 30-13 (semi) in Brisbane
2011: Reds won 37-3 in Brisbane
2010: Blues won 27-18 in Brisbane

Prediction: The Reds have disappointed this year and with the Blues looking solid on home soil, we'll have to back the hosts. Blues by ten points.

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 Jerome Kaino, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Peter Saili, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Steven Luatua, 22 Ihaia West, 23 George Moala.

Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Anthony Fainga'a, 11 Rod Davies, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Fainga'a, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Jono Owen, 19 Ed O'Donoghue, 20 Beau Robinson, 21 Nick Frisby, 22 Ben Lucas, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.

Date: Friday, May 2
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 (local, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)