Blues target critical Super Rugby stretch

Coach Tana Umaga sees the next five weeks as critical in determining how the Blues’ Super Rugby season will pan out.

The Blues, who are coming off a bye, are bottom of a strong New Zealand conference as they prepare to take on the Melbourne Rebels in Auckland on Saturday.

However, Umaga hasn’t ruled out his team’s chances of grabbing one of the Australasian group’s five play-off spots, which are occupied by the Rebels (as the Australian leaders) and the four other New Zealand sides.

“We’re in a tough conference, aren’t we, and every week is difficult for us,” Umaga said.

“I suppose what we feel is that we’re not out of it, even though we are fifth in New Zealand.

“From a wider view, we still believe we’ve got an opportunity and this next five weeks will make or break us in terms of the tournament itself and standings, and where we could end up.”

After the Rebels, the Blues head overseas to face the Kings, the Lions and the Western Force, and return to host the Crusaders before the June international window.

Against Melbourne, Umaga has made two changes to his starting 15 from the 23-18 win over the Sharks.

Rene Ranger’s season-ending knee injury means George Moala comes in at centre.

At lock, Patrick Tuipulotu, who has been out with a fractured hand, has been bracketed with Hoani Matenga, but Umaga is confident Tuipulotu is on target to make his return against Melbourne.

The Blues will be skippered by hooker James Parsons, who has taken over the role for the foreseeable future after initially standing in when All Blacks loose forward Jerome Kaino was sidelined.

While Kaino will again start as blindside flanker, he continues to battle a shoulder complaint that has restricted his involvement in training.

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