Posted on March 13, 2015
The Hurricanes and Blues could not have had more contrasting fortunes in the lead up to their clash in Palmerston North on Friday.
While the 'Canes are one of only two unbeaten sides in the competition, the Blues are the only team yet to win a game and sit rock bottom of the overall standings.
The Hurricanes are aiming to win their opening four fixtures for the first time ever. In contrast, the Blues are enduring their worst ever start to a season, losing their first four fixtures, and have now lost six in a row stretching back to last season; another loss would equal their worst ever run of seven losses in a row, dating back to 2012.
This may officially qualify as the Hurricanes' first 'home' of the season, but they will have to wait until Round Six next week before they get to play at their traditional home in Wellington.
Much has been made of the Hurricanes' attacking prowess but they have the best tackling success rate this season, making 91 percent of their tackles so far.
The knives are understandably out for Blues coach John Kirwan, but the Canes won't be taking anything for granted having been convincingly beaten by the Blues in their last meeting.
"[Last year] they gave us a bit of touch up, to be honest, and a lot of us remember that and we know what it's like in their position," said Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith of the opposition.
Blues in the Canes sights!
"They'll have plenty of motivation for this game.
"That side's dangerous and they'll come together.
"We were in the same position last year and everyone was saying our coach was going to get sacked and all our players were rubbish and whatnot.
"So we know what it's like and then we were one win away from making the finals by the end of the year.
"So we've just got to keep our heads above all that and I think we've done that so far this week," he added.
The last time these team met: The Blues outscored the 'Canes five tries to four to win 37-24 in a Round 16 thriller at Eden Park last year. The Blues led 15-7 at the interval thanks largely to a controversial penalty try before the flood gates opened in the second half. The Blues won most of the individual battles across the park with young fly-half Ihaia West giving a good account of himself.
Players to watch: The 24-year-old Manawatu full-back Nehe Milner-Skudder impressed in last year's ITM Cup for the Turbos and gets his first start having previously featured off the bench. Ma'a Nonu's form has been one of the stories on the opening rounds, and he'll be keen to impress against his former side. Steven Luatua shows his versatility as he switches to number eight with some big boots to fill. Ihaia West has done well off the kicking tee, but he must get his backline firing.
Team news: Milner-Skudder's inclusion at full-back is one of four changes to the Hurricanes backline, replacing James Marshall, with Matt Proctor coming in on the right wing in place of All Blacks winger Cory Jane, who is rested. Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith is also back at outside centre, with TJ Perenara completing a revamped backline.The forwards are unchanged. The Blues are without captain Jerome Kaino who has been ruled out due to concussion, resulting in a backline reshuffle. Steven Luatua moves to number eight while openside flanker Luke Braid takes over the captaincy and Brendon O’Connor returns to wear the number six jersey. Record-setting hooker Keven Mealamu moves to the bench. Jimmy Cowan, who has a knee strain, is bracketed with Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half, with the rest of the backline unchanged.
Form: The Hurricanes are coming off a bye week. Having picked up back-to back wins in South Africa, they thrashed the Western Force 42-13 in Perth last time out. The Blues have also toured South Africa, but returned home with just one losing bonus point. Last week, they squandered a plethora of possession to lose 13-10 to the Lions in much the same fashion they lost out to the Cheetahs a week earlier. The Blues won three of their last four games against the Hurricanes.
Predictions: You can't help but fear that the Blues will bounce back and upset the apple cart but it's impossible to ignore the Hurricanes' form in the early rounds. Hurricanes by six points!
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
2012: Hurricanes won 35-19 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 26-25 in Auckland
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Matt Proctor, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Reggie Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 18 Chris Eves, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Rey Lee-Lo, 23 James Marshall.
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Charles Piutau, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jimmy Cowan/Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid (c), 6 Brendon O'Connor, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao/Sam Prattley, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park/Bryn Hall, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 George Moala.
Date: Friday, 13 March
Venue: Arena Manawatu, Palmerston North
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT; 08:35 SAST; 17:35 AEDT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)