Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Five eighths battle likely to define Blues and Hurricanes clash

Chris Noakes has done enough at first five to hold the Blues selectors' faith despite some anxiety over his defensive skills. Photo / Richard Robinson
Chris Noakes has done enough at first five to hold the Blues selectors' faith despite some anxiety over his defensive skills. Photo / Richard Robinson

All sorts of pictures have been painted about the return clash between the Blues and Hurricanes but ultimately the five-eighths landscape should dictate this result.

The Blues have kept faith with Chris Noakes for tonight's game at Eden Park while the Hurricanes have brought in Tusi Pisi and pushed Beauden Barrett to fullback.

Noakes and Barrett deliver some anxiety for their coaches with their work on defence but both bring a calm authority with their direction and attack. The Blues have persevered, helping Noakes with his tackling techniques and using him in a variety of defensive duties. His astute command, goal kicking and all round radar keep him in the red in the selectors' books.

Barrett is in credit too as an All Black should be, but not enough to wear the No 10 jersey.

Reactions range from those who say Mark Hammett has been spooked by Barrett's defensive frailty on the inside channels to those who subscribe to the best use of resources theory.

Whatever the veracity of any suggestion, the Canes have exchanged him for Pisi, a well-travelled five-eighths with his rugby roots out west of Auckland.

He is experienced and likes to take on the line but he has not been a regular Super 15 competitor.

If he gets his skates on and plugs the holes close to lineouts and rucks which troubled the Canes last week, the Canes' threat will increase.

They are down on manpower though with Victor Vito, Jeremy Thrush, Karl Lowe and Dane Coles not ready although they have ramped up the excitement quota with Ardie Savea joining elder brother Julian in combat.

The Canes have good momentum, shooting for five straight wins and redress for the opening round defeat by the Blues. Both are in a logjam with the Crusaders in the NZ conference as they chase the Chiefs.

Victory for the Blues will add to the win they grafted last round against the Highlanders and effectively mean three on the trot as they head into a bye next round. A central figure in those hopes is halfback Piri Weepu, a former Hurricane who has his fitness and act together this season.

His coach is certain Weepu is the premier in-form halfback in the country but faced another challenge from the talented TJ Perenara tonight.

John Kirwan knew Pisi well from his days coaching in Japan and understood the style he would bring.

"He will add to their attack for sure and I think they will be trying to run it early with him there," he said.

While much of the buzz about the game centred on the firepower men like the Savea brothers, Rene Ranger and Frank Halai could deliver, the basics had been a primary concern for the Blues. They had to clean up their set piece issues to give them stable platforms to work from. The aim was to deliver the scrum quality they found late against the Highlanders, for the start of tonight's contest. "We need to win the hit and chase a bit more so it is a bit of technical stuff for the young front row.

"This is a big one. The Hurricanes have improved and I would like to think we have improved," said Kirwan. "They are one point ahead of us in the table so it is all on."

Blues v Hurricanes

Eden Park, 7.35 tonight

Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Jackson Willison, Rene Ranger, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Calum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Albert Nikoro.

Hurricanes: Beauden Barrett, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Tusi Pisi, TJ Perenara; Faifili Levave, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Jason Eaton, Mark Reddish, Ben May, Motu Matu'u, Ben Franks/Reg Goodes. Reserves: Dane Coles/Ash Dixon, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, James Broadhurst, Jack Lam, Chris Smylie, Reynold Lee-Lo, Andre Taylor.

- NZ Herald

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