Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Pride on line in battle of basement

Piri Weepu talks with Ma'a Nonu of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.
Piri Weepu talks with Ma'a Nonu of the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.

Marketing rugby in Melbourne is difficult enough without an advertising topline about a Super 15 clash tonight between the series' cellar-dwellers, the Blues and Rebels.

The best attendance at "The Stockade" in three matches this season has seen the AAMI ground just over half-full with 16,491 spectators. However there are enough expats in the great southern city to suggest a decent turnout even for a basement battle.

The Rebels have some backline gloss with men like Danny Cipriani, James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale but they lack the quality beef in the pack to muscle through an entire match. The Blues will sense that avenue as they look to reroute a woozy results chart.

They have stacked more muscle into their pack with skipper Keven Mealamu recovered from a calf strain to join fellow All Black Tony Woodcock in the frontrow as a pincer movement to deliver some damage.

Woodcock's return last week was one of the few lights in a dim performance as he put the Hurricanes' scrum into reverse.

Tonight he is up against Rodzilla, the massive tighthead prop Rodney Blake who has received all sorts of plaudits across the Ditch but has rarely delivered.

He was supplanted for much of last season by Greg Somerville and has been duelling with Laurie Weeks for the tighthead prop duties this season. Blake has the nod tonight with his coaches hoping his bulk may be harder to shift for Woodcock.

This match has to be the start of the Blues' revival if they are to have any hope of qualifying for the finals. Victory is the only option as they embark on a nine-game run before their second bye.

"We ruled a line on where we were, we obviously take the learnings out of that and we have nine games on the trot starting with this week," said coach Pat Lam.

"The only thing we can control really is what we do day to day. We talked about it as a group and ... for us it is about focusing on week to week.

"All of us have been involved in bringing us down and everyone is committed to start climbing. That's all it was really and being really clear on what we need to do."

The subplots are many and varied for the Blues as Lam has shuffled his selections again in the crucial leadership roles at halfback and five-eighths. He has gone for an Alby Mathewson-Gareth Anscombe combination with Piri Weepu parked on the bench, as a halfback swap, until necessary.

The dangerous Rene Ranger returns from suspension on the wing and if his pack supplies enough possession, the pickings for Ranger and fullback Rudi Wulf should appear.

Questions will be about the Blues' lineout, which has stuttered this season and is up against some tall Rebels opponents. No 8 Brad Mika will also need to be much more clinical in his distribution from the scrum and needs to up his workrate round the track.

The Rebels played strongly last week for half a game before they were run off the park by the Highlanders. Coach Damien Hill has been frustrated by his side's inability to hold their shape or execute for an entire game.

"While it is frustrating it is still part of this team's development," he said.

"The good thing is it was a really good first half [against the Highlanders], but the disappointing thing is we didn't take the opportunities we created in the first half and the second half we spent 90 per cent of the time defending. The confidence in the group is there. Everyone's a bit frustrated but we know it's there. We just need to persist."

Peter Saili and his brother Francis have been stood down from the Blues for two weeks for breaking team curfews while they were with the side on their recent trip to South Africa.

REBELS

Tonight, 9.35pm (NZ time)

Kurtley Beale
Lachlan Mitchell
Mitch Inman
James O'Connor
Mark Gerrard
Danny Cipriani
Nick Phipps
Gareth Delve (c)
Michael Lipman
Jarrod Saffy
Hugh Pyle
Luke Jones
Rodney Blake
Adam Freier
Nic Henderson

Rebels: Ged Robinson, Laurie Weeks, Alister Campbell, Tim Davidson, Richard Kingi, Julian Huxley, Lloyd Johansson.

BLUES

Rudi Wulf
Lachie Munro
Benson Stanley
Ma'a Nonu
Rene Ranger
Gareth Anscombe
Alby Mathewson
Brad Mika
Daniel Braid
Chris Lowrey
Ali Williams
Filo Paulo
Charlie Faumuina
K. Mealamu (c)
Tony Woodcock

Blues: Tom McCartney Tevita Mailau, Liaki Moli, Dan Pryor, Piri Weepu, Michael Hobbs, Hadleigh Parkes.

- NZ Herald

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