Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: Leiua move should pep up Canes' midfield

Alapati Leiua. Photo / APN
Alapati Leiua. Photo / APN

Alapati Leiua hasn't pulled on a No 12 jersey for three years.

The last time he did, it was for his club side Northern United in Wellington, which is in a different stratosphere from what he will face against the Bulls at McLean Park in Napier tonight.

It seems a long time coming for Leiua to be given a run at second-five for the Hurricanes but a shoulder injury to Tim Bateman, plus the indifferent form of Hadleigh Parkes and Cardiff Vaega, has finally seen the Samoan international summoned.

Centre has been Leiua's preferred position since his days at Porirua College but the 25-year-old has played there sparingly for the Hurricanes when skipper Conrad Smith has been injured.

Leiua has seen more time in the No 13 jersey with Wellington at ITM Cup level but his ability with ball in hand, which was on display as he scored a match-winning try against the Crusaders last week, makes him a prime candidate to play second-five.

"We've talked for many years about Alapati and his ability as a midfielder," Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett said. "Of course we've had some pretty great midfielders in the Hurricanes over the years so he's paved his way as a winger, and a very accurate winger."

Fitting in to the defensive pattern and executing his distribution will be key tasks for Leiua tonight, but Hammett had faith in Leiua's ability to link with his teammates.

"Obviously Alapati's confrontational but we know he's got a fantastic step. He's an outstanding passer of the ball so I suppose they're a couple of things he offers us."

Leiua won't forecast any Sonny Bill-esque offloads but he knows there will be plenty of traffic directed down his channel by the Bulls.

"I'm confident to play there and Conrad's been helping me out," Leiua said. "It's good to have a chance to have a run inside the No 1 centre in the world."

Leiua's running game could give the Hurricanes' midfield the type of punch it hasn't boasted since Ma'a Nonu was in town and it may provide a great opportunity for Smith to run his unique lines from centre.

The Hurricanes have a bye after this week's contest and Bateman could return as early as April 18 against the Blues, but Hammett could have a selection headache of the good kind if Leiua makes a decent fist of his opportunity tonight.

With Leiua's shift to the midfield, Cory Jane gets a reprieve on the right wing and the 45-test All Black said he had no worries about Leiua's ability to fit in at second-five.

"He's just got to play with his instincts," Jane said. "We've seen him on the wing and [playing] at centre as well. He does a bloody good job."

Despite their indifferent start to the campaign, the 2-4 Hurricanes could move back in to playoff contention with a win tonight, although there's still a long way to go in the season. Finding a way to combat the Bulls' dominance at set-piece and stopping their rolling maul will be crucial to the home side's chances.

- APNZ

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