Preview: Blues v Rebels

Date published: April 28 2016

The Rebels will be hoping to consolidate an unlikely pole position in the Australian Conference table when they face a struggling Blues side in Auckland on Saturday.

Apart from their impressive opening round 33-31 win over defending champions the Highlanders, All Black legend Tana Umaga's side have been failing to gain any form of momentum.

The battle of the number tens will be the determining factor in this encounter. Blues' Ihaia West has been in excellent kicking form whereas his opposite number, Jack Debreczeni, has looked dangerous on attack, breaking defences with ease.

The home side will rely on the accuracy of West's boot. The 24-year-old Napier Boys product has a success rate of 74 percent, which includes 20 penalties – the most by any place kicker.

Debreczeni on the other hand is not known for his accurate goalkicking, in fact the Rebels fly-half has been having a horrible season off the tee, so much so that he does not break into the top ten successful goal-kicking list.

His attacking prowess, which allows them to get over the advantage line with ease, has however been a vital factor for the visitors.

With the home side having conceded 72 percent of their tries after the second phase the 22-year-old New Zealand born player's skill and flair might just come in handy for the Melbourne outfit.

The visitors will go into this one beaming with confidence after a brace of tries from Reece Hodge in last week's bonus-point victory over the Cheetahs. But despite being atop the Australian Conference table they have not won in New Zealand since the opening round 20-10 victory over the Crusaders in last year's competition.

The last time the teams met: The Rebels set a new club record by achieving their sixth Super Rugby win with a 42-22 try-scoring bonus-point victory over the Blues at AAMI Park. The Melbourne side had never managed to win six games in a season but set a new benchmark. With Wallabies loose forward Sean McMahon out with a hip injury the Rebels relied on replacement flank Colby Fainga'a's brilliance, both on attack and defence. His fellow back-rower, Jordy Reid, also gave the Blues plenty of headaches, putting in a whooping 18 tackles – the most in the match – while number eight Scott Higginbotham scored his 30th Super Rugby try.

Players to watch: Ihaia West's form off the tee has been a major source of the Blues' points so far this season, while the former New Zealand U20 pivot has been in classy on attack. He has kicked the most penalties by any player, giving us an indication that a lot rests on his shoulders or in this case his boot.

Rebels centre Reece Hodge has been entertaining with ball in hand, and the utility back carves up defensive lines with ease. Last week he not only scored twice for his side but he made nine carries and beat four defenders which makes him a very dangerous weapon in the visitors' attacking arsenal.

Team news: Patrick Tuipulotu is hopeful of making his return to the starting XV and the only other change from the side that started against the Sharks two weeks ago is the return of George Moala to the Blues XV in place of the injured Rene Ranger. It will be Moala’s 49th game for the Blues. The game marks the final game this season for Blues tyros Rieko and Akira Ioane before they move to the All Blacks Sevens squad in the build-up for the Rio Olympics.

Meanwhile, Jamie Hagan will make his Super Rugby run-on debut after being named by Rebels head coach Tony McGahan for Saturday’s game. Tim Metcher, named on the reserves bench, has been recalled into the team for the first time this season after two appearances last season. Rebels flanker Colby Fainga’a will start on the reserves bench for a second week after a successful return to Super Rugby against the Cheetahs following eight weeks on the sideline with an elbow injury suffered in the first round.

Form: The Auckland side, who have racked up 16 points from their seven matches, find themselves at the bottom of the table, eight points adrift of the fourth placed Highlanders on the New Zealand Conference table. Their wins came against the defending champions in Round 1, struggling newcomers the Jaguares and the Sharks two weeks ago. Tana Umaga's side will go into this one well rested after enjoying a bye last week.

Speaking of last week, it was an important bonus-point victory for the Rebels that helped them reach the summit of the Australian Conference table after five wins from their eight matches. The Melbourne outfit have won three of their last five games in arguably their best season thus far since joining Super Rugby in 2011. Victories over the Reds, the Sunwolves and an emphatic 21-17 win over 2014 champions, the Waratahs, are on the board.

Prediction: Despite them topping the Australian Conference table, the Rebels have never won in New Zealand against the Auckland side. We go for the Blues to win by less than five points.

Previous results:

2015: Rebels won 22-42 in Melbourne
2013: Blues won 36-32 in Auckland
2012: Rebels won 23-34 in Melbourne
2011: Blues won 40-23 in North Harbour

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 George Moala, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu/Hoani Matenga, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Nic Mayhew/Namatahi Waa, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Melani Nanai or Matt Duffie

Rebels: 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Cam Crawford, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Sefa Naivalu, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Colby Fainga’a, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Sione Tuipulotu, 23 Kotaro Matsushima 

Date: Saturday, April 30
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 17:15 local (05:15 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Brett Johnson
TMO: Ben Skeen