Rugby: New Blues to lock horns with Bulls

By Chris Barclay

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Coach Pat Lam has made eight changes to his starting line-up as the Blues seek a rare Super 14 rugby win over the Bulls in Pretoria.

A new cast of Blues brothers has been introduced, as Lam renovated the line-up that won their Super 14 opener in Perth last weekend.

Imports Josh Blackie and Jimmy Gopperth are notable inclusions in the run-on side for Sunday's (4am, NZT) match while loosehead prop Tevita Mailau is handed his debut in the formidable Loftus Versfeld stadium.

Mailau, 23, has been chosen ahead of All Blacks cornerstone Tony Woodcock.

It was a tactical move, with Lam wanting to call on Woodcock's experience late in the game, given hooker Keven Mealamu remained a doubtful starter with a calf strain.

Mealamu has been bracketed with Tom McCartney and although medical staff were confident the Blues captain would be available Lam was loathe to take any chances so early in the season.

"The last thing I need is Kevvy (Mealamu) going out and risk losing him for two, three, four weeks if it's not quite right," he said.

Mailau, who has played 14 matches for Auckland since his debut in 2006, faces a tough challenge against a predictably rugged Bulls pack.

"Part of the strategy is we want to finish strongly with Tony on the field."

Blackie, who spent last season in Japan, is the other key change to the pack, replacing Onosa'i Auva'a at openside flanker.

The former Junior All Black, who had 55 appearances for the Highlanders before heading to Japan, joined the squad before the Blues 25-19 victory over the Western Force, after completing his commitments with Kobe Steel.

Despite Blackie missing the pre-season, Lam was confident the 29-year-old was ready for a step up in intensity.

"Josh is an experienced player, he's been at this level many times. He looks like a youngster, he's pretty nervous and excited to go," Lam said.

Lam has made the majority of his alterations in the backline - due to a combination of injury, fatherhood and the requirement to defuse an expected aerial bombardment from Bulls' kickers Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez.

Isaia Toeava moves from centre to fullback while Paul Williams vacates the custodian role for the left wing.

"The Bulls have a very strong kicking game so having Paul and Toeava back there gives us a lot of strength," Lam said.

While the Reds, beaten 20-33 by the Bulls last weekend, expressed concern at an apparent ploy to impede their catchers under the high ball, it was not an issue for Lam.

"The ref should be able to handle that. All we focus on is getting up in the air," he said.

Gopperth will be entrusted with the tactical kicking after the former Hurricane was handed his starting debut for the franchise at the expense of Tasesa Lavea - a switch attributed to personnel rotation.

Anthony Tuitavake moves to centre from the wing to help guide Jamie Helleur - a replacement for the injured Benson Stanley - though the midfield duties in his first Super 14 start.

Chris Smylie will starts at halfback after Taniela Moa delayed his arrival following the birth of his son.

While the Blues have made eight changes, the Bulls have made only one as they seek to prevent the Blues winning in Pretoria for just the second time since the original Super 12 in 1996.

Springbok lock Victor Matfield is unavailable with a shoulder injury for at least three weeks. He has been replaced by fellow international Danie Rossouw in the second row alongside Bakkies Botha.

Bulls
Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, Jaco Pretorius, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez (captain), Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Danie Rossouw, Bakkies Botha, Werner Kruger, Derick Kuun, Gurthro Steenkamp. Reserves: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Pedrie Wannenburg, Heini Adams, Burton Francis, JP Nel.

Blues
Isaia Toeava, Rene Ranger, Anthony Tuitavake, Jamie Helleur, Paul Williams, Jimmy Gopperth, Chris Smylie, Chris Lowrey, Josh Blackie, Justin Collins, Anthony Boric, Kurtis Haiu, John Afoa, Keven Mealamu (captain)/Tom McCartney, Tevita Mailau. Reserves: McCartney/Francis Smith, Tony Woodcock, Dean Budd, Onosa'i Auva'a, Grayson Hart, Michael Hobbs, Winston Stanley.

- NZPA


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