A Charles Piutau knee injury has opened the door for Benji Marshall to start at fullback for the Blues against the Highlanders on Saturday.
All Black Piutau suffered the injury during the 43-19 pre-season defeat to the Chiefs in Rotorua last Friday, a match in which he scored two tries. Coach John Kirwan said yesterday it didn't appear serious at first but the swelling has remained due to a burst blood vessel which has complicated matters.
Piutau was icing the injury during training yesterday, with Marshall, who played 15 minutes at fullback at the Rotorua International Stadium, running at the back. Chris Noakes is highly likely to wear the No 10 jersey under the roof in Dunedin, with Marshall, a high-profile off-season recruit from Wests Tigers, originally slated for a role on the reserves bench.
A late change of plan is unlikely for the Blues given that Piutau should recover, but it has the potential to be unsettling.
The loss of so many experienced Highlanders players after last year's disastrous season would suggest a comfortable Blues victory is in the offing, but Kirwan's men would do well to remember the last encounter between the two sides - a stunning 38-28 win for the home team in Dunedin. With fullback Ben Smith scoring two tries and fellow backs Tamati Ellison (now at the Rebels) and Hosea Gear (Toulouse) scoring the others in a first-half onslaught, a similar offensive effort against a Blues team which has been vulnerable to the counterattack in pre-season would make things extremely interesting, especially if the inexperienced (in rugby terms) Marshall is the last line of defence.
In confirming that Marshall was an option at fullback, after playing three pre-season halves at first-five, Kirwan was positive about the Highlanders' chances this season despite them winning only three matches last year.
"I'd be happy if I was them," he said. "They have gone in under the radar - everyone's written them off. They're playing at home. I know Jamie and I know they'll be proud. We're playing for the Gordon Hunter Trophy so that will give them extra motivation and it's something we're proud of."
Kirwan's men will attempt to reclaim the trophy dedicated to the memory of the late former Highlanders and Blues coach without front rowers Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, who are being rested, and injured midfielder Ma'a Nonu. After being given the all clear from a thumb injury, another scan has revealed that first-five Baden Kerr has a cracked bone and will be unavailable for the first two Blues matches at least. He is aiming to be ready for the Bulls game at Loftus Versfeld after the Crusaders match at Eden Park on February 28.
In all but confirming Noakes for the No 10 jersey, Kirwan said he was looking for his playmaker to strike the right balance. "He had a really good start to the season like the rest of us [last year]."
Former Highlanders lock Hayden Triggs trained with the Blues for the first time yesterday after arriving from Japan overnight.