Rugby: Luatua leaps into focus as lineout king

By Campbell Burnes

Lack of quality locking depth at Blues puts extra pressure on over-worked flanker.

Steven Luatua , right, is crucial to the Blues' game plan. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Luatua , right, is crucial to the Blues' game plan. Photo / Getty Images

The Blues' creaking set-piece is placing a heavy burden on the sturdy shoulders of Steven Luatua.

The blindside flanker's work around the track is getting better each game, after some early passages a vide, as the French would say, but he is the sole go-to man at lineout time as the Blues' lack of quality depth at lock starts to bite.

In fact, Luatua had to finish the Cheetahs game at lock.

The 22-year-old, in his second season of Super Rugby, has won 22 lineouts, according to the Herald Rugby Stats Centre, second only to the Brumbies' Ben Mowen.

Moreover, he has played all bar 17 minutes of the Blues' five games. So central is Luatua to the side's game plan, it is almost impossible to see when or where he could be rested, given his team's over-reliance on his aerial ability.

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The elevation of Jerome Kaino, perhaps at No8, may lessen the strain, but the Blues clearly need more production out of their locks. Patrick Tuipulotu is full of potential, though even he has not claimed more than five takes in this campaign, but his return from a knee injury will not be until at least round 10.

Veteran Tom Donnelly, whose peak coincided with his 2009-10 All Blacks career, was signed to be a set-piece king, but has won just 11 lineouts all season, at an average of just a tick over two takes per game. The question must be asked as to why he is not calling himself or being thrown the ball more often.

Liaki Moli's position is surely in doubt. Regarded as being too short, at 1.94m, for a top-level lock, his output of four lineout wins, 18 carries and 16 tackles pales in comparison with Luatua, though the latter has seen much more action.

The Blues' scrum has not exactly been dominant either, though the picture is cloudy after some messy officiating during the Cheetahs game on Saturday. But how is it that a side with three All Blacks in the tight five, not including the still injured Keven Mealamu, is not putting severe heat on most opponents? Hooker James Parsons, for all his willing work around the track, has hit just 78 per cent of his lineout targets.

Just as we saw the Western Force target the Chiefs' lineout defence with effective rolling mauls last weekend, one would think the Highlanders will look to contest every Blues' throw in this Saturday's Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy match.

The visitors' own lineout stats are far from flawless. The old warhorse Brad Thorn has never been a renowned ball-winner, but no Highlander has yet hit double figures for lineout takes in 2014.

Jarrad Hoeata and Joe Wheeler are more muscular breakdown presences and work-horses, while No8 and co-captain Nasi Manu has claimed six lineouts in more than 300 minutes of play this season.

Other than Tuipulotu, the Blues will be without Mealamu and midfielder Francis Saili until at least round eight (versus the Brumbies), while halfback Jamison Gibson-Park still has a stress fracture in his foot and loose forward Kane Barrett is still afflicted by concussion symptoms.

So it looks like the Blues will again rely on a combination of the 92 per cent accurate boot of Simon Hickey, the indefatigable work-rate of Luke Braid, the thrust of Charles Piutau, and all from lineout ball supplied by Luatua, jumping wherever he is called upon.

- NZ Herald

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