There should be plenty of thrilling action when the Blues and the Hurricanes go head-to-head in their New Zealand derby in Auckland on Friday.
Although the tournament is still in it’s early stages, both these sides can ill afford any below par performaces after suffering defeats last weekend.
The Blues kicked off their campaign in style with a deserved home victory over the champions, the Highlanders, but were then beaten 26-13 by the Crusaders in Christchurch last weekend.
The Hurricanes are yet to regain the form which carried them to last year’s final. They conceded 50 points in their season opener against the Brumbies and, although they fared better in their next outing against the Highlanders, they still suffered a 17-16 defeat.
Both these sides have proven matchwinners and game-breakers but with the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith no longer playing for the Hurricanes the men from Wellington have battled to find their mojo.
The Hurricanes was one of the most entertaining sides in the tournament in 2015 but the statistics tell a different story this season while the Blues, despite that fine start against the Highlanders haven’t fared much better.
Of the teams that played both the opening rounds of matches, the Hurricanes – along with the Western Force – scored the least tries (2) while the Blues are second lowest in that department with four tries.
The Blues have also made the least clean breaks (11) this season and the Hurricanes are next lowest with 12.
Although those statistics should be worrying for the supporters of these sides, this fixture is usually a fast-paced, entertaining affair and this clash should be no different.
The last time these teams met: The Hurricanes had too much firepower for their countrymen and secured a 29-5 with a bonus-point victory in Auckland. It was a fine allround effort from the ‘Canes with Chris Eves, TJ Perenara, Dane Coles and Nehe Milner-Skudder all crossing the whitewash. The Blues’ solitary try and only points was scored late on by Matt Vaega.
Players to watch: Former All Black Rene Ranger was a subdued figure upon his return to the Blues starting line-up against the Crusaders last weekend. Ranger has shifted from outside centre to right wing for this clash and will be hoping to leave his stamp on this match with some of his trademark counter-attacking runs. Ranger in full flight is hard to stop and will be keen to show that he still has the ability unlock defences with a moment of brilliance.
After a poor showing against the Brumbies, the Hurricanes’ All Blacks halfback duo of Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara showed signs of improvement agains the Highlanders last weekend. Their game-management will prove crucial if the men from Wellington want to return to their winning ways. With Dane Coles still out through injury, Perenara continues to captain the side and his leadership skills and decision-making will also be important if they want to end their winless run.
Team news: All Blacks Sevens stalwart Akira Ioane replaces Steven Luatua at the back of the scrum for the Blues with lock Patrick Tuipulotu shifting to the bench to make way for Luatua in the run-on side. Tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina gets the nod ahead of Sione Mafileo in the front row. Fly-half Ihaia West returns to the starting XV and Japanese international Male Su’a pairs up with George Moala in the midfield. Lolagi Visinia also comes in for Matt Duffie at full-back. Rene Ranger moves from the outside centre to the right wing where he takes over from Melani Nanai.
Form: The Blues impressed in their opener – claiming a deserved 33-31 victory in Auckland against the defending champions, the Highlanders. They came unstuck against the Crusaders in their next match, however, suffering a 26-13 defeat. The Hurricanes have lost both their fixtures so far but there was great improvement in their 17-16 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin after they suffered a humiliating 52-10 loss in their opener against the Brumbies in Canberra.
Prediction: The Blues will be determined to make up for last weekend’s loss but the Hurricanes will not go down without a fight. It will be a closely fought battle but the Blues will win by three.
2015: Hurricanes won 29-5 in Auckland
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
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rene Ranger, 13 Male Su’a, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino (c), 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Steven Luatua, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Melani Nanai
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Mark Abbott, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen, 2 Leni Apisai, 1 Reggie Goodes
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Willis Halaholo, 23 Cory Jane
Date: Saturday, March 12
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (10:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill, Brett Johnson
TMO: Shane McDermott