Rugby: Plenty of pressure on under-strength Blues

By Kris Shannon

Kevin Mealamu will begin the game on the bench. Photo / APN
Kevin Mealamu will begin the game on the bench. Photo / APN

If the Blues do emerge from a brutal final three weeks and eventually squeeze into the Super 15 playoffs, they certainly will have earned their place.

And the biggest challenge they will face in the remainder of the campaign could come against the lowest-ranked team - the encounter with the Sharks in Durban tomorrow morning (NZT).

Although the Cheetahs (away) and Chiefs (home) present tougher tests on paper, the Blues have several factors going against them heading into tomorrow morning's must-win game.

Key pair Keven Mealamu and Rene Ranger will begin on the bench after arriving late in the republic following All Blacks duty, while lock Culum Retallick is suffering from illness and has been bracketed with Kane Barrett among the substitutes.

"It was really important that these guys [Mealamu and Ranger] got home after they'd been with the All Blacks so today will be our first training run together since the players left," coach Sir John Kirwan said.

"It's probably not the most ideal preparation but we've planned for it and we understood how it was going to be."

Exacerbating the poor preparation is the uncertainty surrounding the health of Nelson Mandela, with the former Prime Minister's potential passing raising the prospect of a 10-day official mourning period and throwing into doubt every sporting fixture in the country.

Sitting eighth overall and third in the New Zealand conference, three points behind the Crusaders, the Blues really need to put the distractions to one side if they wish to completely exorcise the demons from last year's nightmarish campaign by snatching a playoff place.

They also need to show they have short memories, after stumbling into the international break with losses against the Brumbies and Highlanders.

But it's not all bad news for the Blues' prospects. The Sharks' unlikely push for the playoffs has seen Kiwi coach John Plumtree fired this week, giving the South African side a distraction matching anything encountered by their opposition.

And the Blues will also be boosted by a milestone match for captain Ali Williams, who will join an illustrious group of players to have notched 100 games for the franchise, something Kirwan hopes will inspire his side.

"It's great for someone like him - he's such a proud Blues man," he said. "He's been one of the key guys driving the importance of the game this week for us as a franchise. It's a test match for us and the players are very excited about it.

"We've been chatting all week about how important this game is for our season so it'll be very interesting to see how they deal with that sudden death pressure."

Sharks v Blues

Durban, 12.50am tomorrow

Sharks: Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Louis Ludik, Butch James, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel (c), Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, F van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira
Reserves: Bismarck du Plessis, Danie Mienie/Wiehahn Herbst, Jandre Marais, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Jaco van Tonder.

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

- NZ Herald

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