A fierce breakdown battle is tipped as pivotal when the Brumbies take on a Blues team fired up for their long-awaited return to Eden Park on Friday night.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan has taken the rare step of benching big All Blacks backrower Steven Luatua in order to put two specialist openside flankers – Luke Braid and Brendan O’Connor – up against the Brumbies who boast breakdown maestro David Pocock.
Statistics show Kirwan has good reason to be worried.
The winless Blues have the worst average for rucks lost per game in Super Rugby this season, at 5.3 per game and they’re in the bottom five teams for ruck success overall.
In contrast, the Brumbies have forced a worse ruck success rate from their opponent’s than any other team.
“We’ve picked a couple of flyers at loose forward so we can be really competitive at the breakdown,” Kirwan said.
While the Brumbies are third on the Super Rugby ladder, behind only the Hurricanes and Chiefs, the last-placed Blues are on the longest losing streak in their history.
However they’ve been well in the battle in all seven losses this season and their return to Eden Park for the first time this season, following the cricket World Cup, is a major boost.
Kirwan refuses to believe his team are out of playoffs contention.
“Never over – running out of runway – but we’re certainly really positive,” he said.
“We have a strong run home. We have lots of home games. Fantastic to be back at Eden Park this week but we need to start winning.”
He’ll find that tough against the Brumbies who have an unchanged side from that which beat the Cheetahs 20-3 last week – the fourth time they’ve kept a team tryless this season.
Brumbies contact coach Peter Ryan has been given due credit for that magnificent defence but he rates the Blues a real threat.
“The Blues are very dangerous from their unstructured play, and we’ll need to make sure we’re strong up through the middle and making our first-up tackles, and not having to rely on scramble defence,” said Ryan.
Brumbies: Robbie Coleman; Joe Tomane, Henry Speight, Christian Lealiifano, James Dargaville; Matt Toomua, Nic White; Jarrad Butler, David Pocock, Scott Fardy; Sam Carter, Blake Enever; Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Scott Sio. Res: Josh Mann-Rea, JP Smith, Ruan Smith, Jordan Smiler, Ita Vaea, Michael Dowsett, Lausii Taliauli, Nigel Ah Wong.
Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Pita Ahki, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Dan Bowden, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jerome Kaino (capt), Brendon O’Connor, Luke Braid, Patrick Tuipulotu, Josh Bekhuis, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Res: Keven Mealamu, Sam Prattley, Angus Ta’avao, Hayden Triggs, Steven Luatua, Jamie Booth, Ihaia West, Francis Saili.