Rugby: Saili set for bigger role

By Patrick McKendry

Blues midfielder happy to put up his hand for more responsibility if Nonu moves on as expected

Francis Saili's start against the Chiefs at Eden Park tonight marks a new beginning. Photo / Getty Images
Francis Saili's start against the Chiefs at Eden Park tonight marks a new beginning. Photo / Getty Images

Foot and ankle injuries have combined to make this a frustrating year for Francis Saili, but as the Blues' season comes to a conclusion, he need only look at how he might fit into next year's midfield equation to put a fresh perspective on things.

If, as is widely expected, Ma'a Nonu takes off after serving only one year of his two-year contract under John Kirwan, Saili suddenly becomes a whole lot more valuable to the franchise.

An All Black last year in only his second season at this level, Saili's injuries, which have curtailed his involvement to only six games this season, saw him slip down the national pecking order.

For him, back in the starting line-up for the first time since the win over the Waratahs at Eden Park in April, tonight's match against the Chiefs at the Blues' fortress is a new beginning.

After coming through last weekend's defeat to the Crusaders as a replacement which proved his stress fracture and high ankle sprain were both in the past, Pita Ahki's move to the national sevens team allows Saili an opportunity he is extremely keen to build on.

Partnering Nonu in the midfield, Saili said he was happy to put his hand up for greater responsibility at second-five or centre next year should the All Blacks veteran move back to the Hurricanes. In the midfield mix would be Saili, Ahki, George Moala and newcomer Dan Bowden, with Saili probably vying with Bowden for the No 12 jersey.

"It depends on what the situation on Ma'a is, I'd love for him to stay but we don't know yet ... [but] if the team needs me to take responsibility then I'm willing to take that," Saili said.

Comfortable at both second-five and centre, 23-year-old Saili played two tests last year - against Argentina in Hamilton and Japan in Tokyo.

The emergence of Malakai Fekitoa means the All Blacks' midfield stocks are deep at the moment. Ryan Crotty has also been a consistent performer for the Crusaders and has taken his opportunities when coming on late for the All Blacks.

Saili isn't completely out of the frame though, and, starting again tonight, he is determined to prove he still has what it takes to excel at the top level.

"That's my long-term goal for this year as well. I haven't had much game time. Other players have had more opportunities than I have, but it's for me to try to put my hand up. If we can put in a great performance out on the paddock [against the Chiefs], hopefully I can put my best foot forward and the coaches can see that."

He acknowledges it won't be easy against a Chiefs team who still harbour aspirations to make the playoffs and defend their back-to-back titles despite their disappointing season.

In his and Nonu's favour is the fact that their opposites, Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai-Williams, aren't the biggest of midfielders.

"We've got to try to put a lot of line speed on them [on defence]. We have to try to target them at the ruck."

Former All Blacks halfback Piri Weepu is understood to have signed a two-year deal with English club London Welsh.

Blues v Chiefs

Eden Park, 7.35 tonight
Charles Piutau
Lolagi Visinia
Francis Saili
Ma'a Nonu
Tevita Li
Ihaia West
Bryn Hall
Jerome Kaino
B. O'Connor
Steven Luatua
Tom Donnelly
Patrick Tuipulotu
Charlie Faumuina
K. Mealamu (c)
Sam Prattley

Tom Marshall
A. Tikoirotuma
T. Nanai-Williams
Bundee Aki
James Lowe
Aaron Cruden (c)
T. Kerr-Barlow
Liam Squire
Tanerau Latimer
Liam Messam
Brodie Retallick
Mike Fitzgerald
Ben Tameifuna
M. Schwalger
Jamie Mackintosh

Blues: James Parsons, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Hayden Triggs, Peter Saili, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jackson Willison, George Moala.
Chiefs: Nathan Harris, Pauliasi Manu, Nick Barrett, Matt Symons, Tevita Koloamatangi, Augustine Pulu, Gareth Anscombe, Dwayne Sweeney.

- NZ Herald

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