Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Sharks could be fatal for the Blues

Result against physical South Africans will indicate chances of salvaging poor season.

The season's standout Blues player Luke Braid returns tonight. Photo / Getty Images
The season's standout Blues player Luke Braid returns tonight. Photo / Getty Images

In looking forward to the remainder of the season, the Blues must glance back and ensure they don't repeat their finish to 2013.

Although they are mathematically still in with a chance of making the top six and resulting play-offs this year, their inconsistent form suggests they will struggle to win their remaining five matches, starting tonight against the Sharks at North Harbour Stadium.

Last year they lost their last six matches, including two at Eden Park. It was a limp end to a season which started with promise in the early days of John Kirwan's reign.

The challenge for them is to maintain standards when things aren't going their way. Another weak finish would be doubly disappointing given the talent in the team and the heights they have reached this season at their Eden Park fortress.

Luke Braid, a standout this season in terms of his leadership and effectiveness around the field, returns to the No 7 jersey tonight after missing the past two matches - a win over the Reds and loss to the Chiefs - due to a shoulder injury.

His presence will be welcome and not only for the cool head he provides in what is likely to be the furnace-like heat of the breakdown against the physical South Africans.

Despite his recent absence, Braid still comfortably leads the tackle count at the Blues with 105. Steven Luatua is next with 77. Braid is also the second best carrier with 87 runs with the ball behind injured fullback Charles Piutau's mammoth 122.

In looking back over the season the principal emotion for Braid is one of disappointment, but he and his teammates can at least take solace in the fact they still have something tangible to play for. Perhaps the biggest test will come if and when they are finally out of the play-offs running.

"I don't really want to dwell on what happened at the start of the season, but we didn't take some opportunities ... this far down the track we're still playing some good footy," Braid said.

"We're still in there, potentially. We can only look forward. What we can do is win those last five games. We could win those five games and still not go through but that's the only controllable we have at the moment."

The major task for the Blues will be to force the Sharks into making mistakes, while making few themselves. Sharks coach Jake White has been accused of ruining rugby with his conservative tactics but there is no doubt they are effective, especially at this end of the season and doubly so in a New Zealand winter.

They showed incredible composure to close out the match against the Crusaders in Christchurch while being a man down for the majority of it.

Kirwan's team must bring a physical approach that was so sadly lacking against the Chiefs in New Plymouth before last weekend's bye.

They have the forwards to do it - an All Blacks front row in the form of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina, a lock in Patrick Tuipulotu who is going places, and a loose forward trio comprising Braid and the hard-nosed Jerome Kaino and Peter Saili. Now they have to show the mental resolve at their home away from home.

"You know what to expect," Braid said. "Massive blokes. I expect it to be a bruising encounter."

- APNZ

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