Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Patrick McKendry: Importance of good start makes Blues call risky

Keven Mealamu will not get his first Blues game until round two against the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Keven Mealamu will not get his first Blues game until round two against the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

The arguments for and against resting Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu for the Blues' first game of the season against the Highlanders would have been given careful consideration by coach Sir John Kirwan and his assistants. But the fact remains - leaving two of the team's best players out is a risk.

A good start to the Super rugby season cannot be underestimated, no matter how long - 16 matches plus play-off matches if applicable - it now is.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder appears to have grasped this with his decision to do away with pre-season camps to concentrate on rugby in order to give his team the best chance to hit the ground running.

The Crusaders have been slow starters and Blackadder is hoping a change in focus will help. He also has several All Blacks to integrate into his side and he will take his own risk in electing to leave out skipper Kieran Read for the first game against the Chiefs in Christchurch. Read has been probably the Crusaders' most influential player over the past two seasons, but Blackadder will hope that in Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Richie McCaw, George Whitelock and Matt Todd, they have a pack good enough to cope with Read's absence in what could be a highly charged fixture given the rivalry building between the two sides.

Last season, the Crusaders had a bye in week one, were walloped 34-15 by the Blues at Eden Park in week two, and threw away what would have been a win against the Hurricanes in Wellington with an intercept pass in the final minute for another loss.

This season, the Blues host the Crusaders at Eden Park in round two - a match in which All Black front rowers Woodcock and Mealamu will get their first hit-out. Kirwan will hope midfielder Ma'a Nonu is also available after his ankle surgery.

Jamie Joseph's Highlanders, meanwhile, will be hoping to spring a surprise on the Blues - and they have form in this area. One of the few high points in last year's disastrous season, in which they won only three matches, was their incredible victory over the Blues in Dunedin - they led 29-7 at the break before winning 38-28.

If the Highlanders repeat that shock on February 22, and the Crusaders win in Auckland the week after, the Blues will be heading to Loftus Versfeld and what is always a tough challenge against the Bulls under a great deal of pressure.

It is a long season and the June test break doesn't do the All Blacks or the New Zealand franchise coaches any favours.

It all comes down to depth - and how much the Blues have will be put to the test in week one. With a weakness at lock - which has already seen an SOS go out to Hayden Triggs - which will turn into a crisis if he or Tom Donnelly suffers an injury, the pack, at least, has issues in this area.

- NZ Herald

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Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby writer Patrick McKendry began his journalism career 20 years ago and has worked in newspapers in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He worked in a communications role on his return here before joining APN before the 2011 World Cup.

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