Preview: Blues v Hurricanes

Date published: May 21 2015

Victory over the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday will guarantee the Hurricanes a spot in the Super Rugby play-offs for the first time since 2009.

To say this has been a season of contrasting fortunes for these two sides would be a massive understatement as the 'Canes arrive in Auckland bubbling with confidence while the injury-depleted Blues struggle with drama off the field and dismal results on it.

The continued uncertainty over future of head coach John Kirwan has been making headlines all week, making for an unwelcome distraction for a Blues outfit shorn of leaders and short of options. And if things go according to the form book this weekend, the situation won't be getting any better.

The Blues are on a run of seven defeats against fellow New Zealand sides and although five of those have come on the road, it's fair to say they have been the biggest disappointment of the tournament this season.

The Blues were comfortable winners the last two times the Hurricanes visited Eden Park, securing bonus-point victories on both occasions, but the 'Canes side that comes a-knocking this week is having one of those seasons where the dice just always seem to fall their way, reminiscent on the Waratahs last year.

Close results and 50 point games have been commonplace but, as illustrated by their narrow win over the Chiefs last week, the stars seemed to have aligned in the Hurricanes' favour and winning has become a habit. And habits are hard to break.

Most remarkable has been the 'Canes ability to cash in on opportunities, without necessarily having had loads of possession. This is in perfect contrast to the Blues, who have played a lot of rugby with ball in hand, but have made a truckload off errors.

Indeed, the 'Canes average more tackles per game than any other team (135) whilst the Blues are the third most tackled team (123).

The Hurricanes can boast two of Super Rugby’s top three try scorers (TJ Perenara with 7 and Julian Savea with 6) whilst no Blues player has managed more than three this season.

It's in the final quarter that the Hurricanes are doing the damage, scoring 15 of their 41 tries during the final 20 minutes yet conceding only five as the game opens up.

Such is the confidence in the squad that Chris Boyd has made a major reshuffle of his starting side, but the visitors must still be considered favorites.

The last time these team met: The Hurricanes outscored the Blues four tries to two, winning 30-23 when they clashed in Round Five back in March. Julian Savea scored his second try of the night in the dying minutes to secure victory – and a bonus point – for the hosts in Palmerston North, but the game hung in the balance until the very end.  

Players to watch: Hooker James Parsons will captain the Blues but more than just his leadership will be in the spotlight. New Zealand have serious depth issues at hooker and a strong performance against the current All Black incumbent could strengthen his case for a World Cup berth. Keep an eye on flanker Akira Ioane, who has been one of the revelations of the season, in his last game before jetting off to Italy as part of the New Zealand U20 team competing in the Junior World Championships.

With Conrad Smith given the week off, Samoan international centre Rey Lee-Lo gets just his third start of the season for the 'Canes. He has been excellent in all five appearances off the bench so far and coach Boyd has been singing his praises for the way he has trained. Likewise, Chris Eves is given a start after making handful of telling contributions this season in the competition's most consistent scrum.

Team news: Parsons will lead the Blues from a new front row after injuries to previous captains Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua. Sam Prattley gets his first start of the year in the place of Tony Woodcock at loosehead prop while Ofa Tu’ungafasi takes over from Charlie Faumuina at tighthead. Ioane moves to number eight in the absence of the aforementioned All Blacks with Blake Gibson coming into the loose trio and Brendon O'Connor shifting to the other side of the scrum.

Jeremy Thrush will captain a Hurricanes team that also features an all-new front row. Regular skipper Conrad Smith is rested in one of five changes, meaning Lee-Lo partners Ma'a Nonu in midfield. Eves starts at loosehead to replace Reggie Goodes who is serving a one-week suspension. Tighthead prop Ben Franks sits out and is replaced by Jeffery Toomaga-Allen. Dane Coles returns at hooker. Blade Thomson comes in at flank in place of Brad Shields, who is among the replacements.

Form: The Blues have won just three games this year, but two of those victories have come in the last three weeks having beaten the Bulls 23-18 last weekend. The Hurricanes have lost just once this season and have won their last five away games, a record run on the road for the Wellington-based side. They beat the Chiefs 22-18 last week.

Predictions: The Blues have won their last three games on home soil, so they won't be the pushovers many are predicting. On current form though, it's foolish to bet against the 'Canes. Hurricanes by seven points.

Previous results:
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

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Brendon O'Connor, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Angus Ta’avao, 18 Nic Mayhew, 19 Will Lloyd/Hayden Triggs, 20 Joe Edwards, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega.

Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 James Marshall, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush (c ), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Chris Eves.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Ben May, 18 Tolu Fahamokioa, 19 Mark Abbott/Callum Gibbins, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Otere Black, 23 Willis Halaholo.

Date: Saturday, May 23
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: Ben O'Keeffe, Aki Aso
TMO: Aaron Paterson