Planet Rugby

Preview: Blues v Cheetahs

20th March 2014 17:25

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phillip van der walt blues cheetahs

Drive: Phillip van der Walt

Two all-action teams with leaky defences face off in Auckland on Saturday as the Blues host the touring Cheetahs at Eden Park.

It's been some tour for Naka Drotske's men, who must be relishing the chance to get back to South Africa and reassess where their season is going.

We're talking about a team that were outstanding on the road last season, yet shipped 60 points in Wellington and 43 in Brisbane, not to mention 35 against the Melbourne Rebels - a game the '13 class would have been expected to win and win well.

The attack isn't a major worry, with 74 points scored across those three games, but the defensive hole is impossible to ignore. Not installing a full-time defence coach, with Michael Horak off to the Kings, just seems foolish.

The Cheetahs remain full of running - their 2036 metres is the most by any team this season - but their ball security and work at the ruck is a real concern with only an 89 percent success rate, the worst in the tournament.

Getting something out of this tour would be a huge morale boost, after competing well in parts against the Reds and Hurricanes but failing to secure a win.

The way the Blues have defended at times, last week in Johannesburg included, makes it seem possible.

How a team coached by two knights in John Kirwan and Graham Henry can defend so abysmally at times is beyond comprehension.

There is however an eye-watering amount of talent in the backline, so much so that Benji Marshall has to settle for a spot on the bench this week.

Switching Charles Piutau to full-back gives the All Black more freedom to look for weaker inside channels and defensive chinks. Combine him with Frank Halai and Tevita Li and you have devastating pace for the top try scorers in the competition so far on 11.

Simon Hickey caught the eye when kicking his team to victory over the Crusaders the last time the Blues ran out at Eden Park. He appears to be a fine talent, possibly a breakout star of this year's tournament, benefiting from the immense experience of Piri Weepu on his inside.

The best news for the Blues this week however is probably the sight of two big names on the bench. World Cup winners Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino should both get some action in the second half to pick on their weary visitors. The kind of experience that those two offer is essential.

With victory over the Crusaders the Blues hinted that they might be set for bigger and better things this season, but successive losses on tour in South Africa - regardless of the TMO controversy at Ellis Park - have raised the question once again as to whether they are serious about challenging the Chiefs.

See off the Cheetahs here with a bonus point, and Auckland fans can dare to dream. Already trailing the leaders by six points, there's no time to waste.

Prediction: The home side should pick on the Cheetahs' fatigue at the end of an unforgiving tour. Blues by 10.

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Jerome Kaino, 20 Hayden Triggs, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ma'a Nonu, 23 Benji Marshall.

Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Rayno Benjamin, 11 Hennie Daniller, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean Cook, 6 Boom Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Nicolaas van Dyk, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Caylib Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Rossouw de Klerk, 19 Andries Ferreira, 20 Lappies Labuschagne, 21 Shaun Venter, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Howard Mnisi.

Date: Saturday, March 22
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.35 local (06.35 GMT)
Referee: Francisco Pastrana (Argentina)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)

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