Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Blues faith in five-eighths to be tested

Hickey has chance to stake long-term claims to No 10 jersey.

As learning curves go, Simon Hickey's is dauntingly steep. Having made his debut against the Crusaders, he'll now face the Bulls in Pretoria. The 20-year-old Hickey has suddenly presented himself as the long-term future of the franchise.

No one saw that coming and yet it feels decidedly right based on the 80 minutes Hickey delivered in the No10 jersey at Eden Park last week.

He was composed, accurate and brave against the Crusaders. He was everything coach Sir John Kirwan had wanted the more experienced Chris Noakes to be in the opening game against the Highlanders.

When Noakes failed to deliver, Kirwan appeared to roll the dice by bringing in Hickey, who is not even a full squad member. Another high-profile squad member, Benji Marshall, has not even made the match-day 23.

The best conclusion to reach is that Kirwan's Hickey selection was inspired rather than lucky.

They had a relatively high level of confidence that Hickey would handle the occasion and deliver the goods, but there was a risk.

With confirmation that Hickey had the temperament, Kirwan said it was a relatively straightforward decision to give the young No10 another crack this week.

"We thought we might have seen a few critical errors from him [against the Crusaders], because of his age. But he was so composed and accurate that we felt the right thing to do was to give him the confidence by continuing his development."

The challenge of playing the Bulls is likely to be made harder again by the heavy rain that has fallen in Pretoria since the Blues arrived. The pitch isn't fancied to hold up or for the rain to stay away, so a brutal slog awaits.

Partly for that reason, Kirwan felt it prudent to start veteran front-rowers Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu and use the inexperienced Patrick Tuipulotu off the bench after some of the sting has been taken out of the Bulls.

The Bulls never do subtle or unpredictable and the Blues know the scrum and breakdown will be two of the chosen areas of conflict for their hosts.

The third will be the kicking duel and 18-year-old Tevita Li, brilliant last week on the dry Eden Park, will inevitably spend his time fielding high balls.

There's an element of certainty within the Blues camp that Li is going to be a superstar and therefore exposing him to kick-and-chase rugby now is the right thing to do. It's an element of the game he'll have to master to fulfil his potential.

"It'll be a big game for him from a high ball perspective," Kirwan said.

"The Bulls will maul and they will kick high balls, that's how they play so it'll be another type of game for him."

Blues: C. Piutau, F. Halai, G. Moala, J. Willison, T. Li, S. Hickey, P. Weepu, P. Saili, L. Braid (c), S. Luatua, T. Donnelly, L. Moli, C. Faumuina, K. Mealamu, T. Woodcock. Reserves: J. Parsons, S. Prattley, A. Ta'avao, P. Tuipulotu, B. O'Connor, B. Hall, C. Noakes, P. Ahki.

- NZ Herald

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