Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Blues want to keep the ball rolling

Win against Cheetahs boost to confidence ahead of return clash against Highlanders.

The Super 15 maze shifts to Eden Park on Saturday as the Blues host the Highlanders for their repeat contest.

Their work has snaked through a mix of rewards and roadblocks since the Highlanders stunned the Blues in the tournament opener in Dunedin.

Both sides have young five-eighths, Lima Sopoaga and Simon Hickey, who are strong goal-kickers, while the Blues have a shade more try-scoring firepower although rivals have breached their defences regularly.

In the opening skirmish the Blues began with a "slim favourite" tag and ended with a "what was that" label. They conceded a decent lead and despite a rousing rally were unable to claw back the margin.

They have Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino all in the selection frame this time but the Blues need more than reputations to convince many they are the business for this clash. However, the bonus point victory against the Cheetahs was a great boost after travelling back from South Africa and a spur for this section of the competition when the Blues play the Highlanders then the Brumbies before their first bye.

Comments from coach John Kirwan suggest he had tried some selection experiments in the first five games but that tolerance had expired.

"I think everyone's had a pretty good crack at it," he said. "Obviously we were hoping to have more points in the bank, so now we've got to start saying we've got to pick the best side and really start winning some football games."

Victory against the Cheetahs was the first time this season the Blues have led a match at halftime. They have been slow to ignite and that trend sent them to losses against the Highlanders, Bulls and Lions with the one reversal against the Crusaders.

Hooker Keven Mealamu, promising lock Patrick Tuipulotu and Francis Saili remain on the injured roster with long-term casualties Jamison Gibson-Park and Kane Barrett.

Rugby Herald: What's next for the Blues?

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The Highlanders will come with an idea to rattle the Blues around their set piece and use the box kicking of Aaron Smith and the counter-attack of Ben Smith to puncture holes in the defence. They are sparkplugs for the visitors who have been more cohesive than they were last season.

That cohesion has not always been apparent with the Blues. There have been lineout wobbles away from the main target Steven Luatua and troubles with the scrum. Now the Blues are working through the reintegration of Nonu and Kaino who came on for the final stages of the Cheetahs match.

Are they ready to start this game or are Jackson Willison and Peter Saili better primed for the start with the All Blacks to provide some better sting from the bench?

This is a decisive time for the Blues. They did not collect a victory in South Africa but a winning sequence now will provide the impetus for a renewed run in the series.

- NZ Herald

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