Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Trial by fire for rookies as Blues hunt redemption

Gareth Anscombe. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Gareth Anscombe. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Playing in Pretoria is not new for rookie Blues prop Pauliasi Manu. He's had a taste of rugby there with the Blues development side, but facing the Bulls tomorrow is a huge curtain call for the rookie frontrower.

Manu will square off against Werner Kruger, already capped as a Springbok and someone regarded as the frontline in the next wave of Bulls talent.

"Pauli has not got a lot of experience but he is a strong scrummager and physical with the ball," Blues coach Pat Lam said.

Manu started life as a prop, and tried out as hooker, but has returned to his specialist loosehead duties.

There's been a bit of that patchwork selection from the Blues for this third-round Super 15 clash as injury, form and personal emergencies bit into the choice.

Utility Lachie Munro has slotted into fullback, Benson Stanley shifts out to centre, Rene Ranger to the wing and Piri Weepu into halfback.

In the forwards they are using the Braid brothers as flankers and have switched Chris Lowrey to fill the No 8 duties.

There will be enthusiasm from all those at this early but critical juncture of the Blues season.

But whether that translates into effectiveness will not be discovered until tomorrow at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on the Highveld.

Lam has picked a starting combination he believes is best suited to absorb the Bulls' initial onslaught with enough clout off the bench to maintain momentum as the altitude and pressure kick in during the latter stages of the match.

"Experience is necessary, especially at the start of the game. The start is always fire and brimstone here. It is a cauldron," he said. "The team has been selected around the way we want to start and finish, and getting that balance right."

It had been a lengthy week of introspection, self-evaluation and collective determination to redress the shoddy defeat against the Chiefs.

That sloppy performance has earned widespread rebuke including comments from the Blues chief executive Andy Dalton, who will be in Pretoria to see the side's response.

"Now we've got a new week and it is a challenge. We need a positive attitude and it is about putting together a performance for the team," Lam said. "The whip has been cracked because everyone is obviously disappointed."

Young first five-eighths Gareth Anscombe will start for the first time, with the verdict out on whether he will suffer or blossom with All Blacks Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu on either side.

It is some arena for Anscombe to start especially given his opposite, Morne Steyn, the goalkicking whizz and tactical leader for the hosts.

Anscombe is young but he has been a five-eighths throughout his career unlike Hobbs and Weepu who have been used in the role by the Blues this season.

But the onus has to come down to the Blues pack which was truly poor against the Chiefs last week. They have to match the Bulls, quell their fervour and soak up their fire.

"We can make better decisions," Bulls coach Frans Ludeke warned. "And be smarter especially at the tackle and breakdown area."

The Bulls have lost a clutch of experienced men like Fourie Du Preez, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield this year, but they have started with two wins and a confident strut.

Meanwhile the Blues have lost two and flown halfway around the world to try and find some redemption.

Bulls v Blues

Pretoria, 6.10am tomorrow

Zane Kirchner
Akona Ndungane
Wynand Olivier
Francois Venter
Bjorn Basson
Morne Steyn
Jano Vermaak
Pierre Spies (c)
Jacques Potgieter
Deon Stegmann
Juandre Kruger
Flip van der Merwe
Werner Kruger
Chiliboy Ralepelle
Dean Greyling

Bulls: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, CJ Stander, Ruan Snyman, Louis Fouche, JJ Engelbrecht.

Lachie Munro
Sherwin Stowers
Benson Stanley
Ma'a Nonu
Rene Ranger
Gareth Anscombe
Piri Weepu
Chris Lowrey
Daniel Braid
Luke Braid
Ali Williams
Anthony Boric
Charlie Faumuina
Keven Mealamu
Pauliasi Manu

Blues: Tom McCartney, Tevita Mailau, Filo Paulo, Brad Mika, Alby Mathewson, Hadleigh Parkes, David Raikuna.

- NZ Herald

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