Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Blues v Chiefs high on motivation

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Auckland Blues.
Auckland Blues.

Eden Park is the Blues' impregnable fortress. At least it has been this season as they have seen off the Crusaders, Cheetahs, Highlanders, Waratahs, Reds and Hurricanes with the Chiefs in their final pool game rangefinder tonight.

It's a repeat of last year's schedule when the Chiefs travelled up State Highway One to tip up the Blues 26-16 en route to the playoffs and their second title. Details have changed a fair bit since then.

The Blues have held firm at Eden Park although apart from the win against the Force, they have been unable to find the same recipe away from HQ. The Chiefs have had their difficulties, too, and must win tonight to qualify for another shot at defending their title.

Both sides have lost a stack of players since last July.

The Chiefs have shed Robbie Robinson, Lelia Masaga, Andrew Horrell, Matt Vant Leven, Craig Clarke, Toby Smith and Hika Elliott while Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Baden Kerr, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Kane Barrett, Ali Williams, Anthony Boric and Angus Ta'avao are missing from the Blues.

When the sides met in New Plymouth two months ago the Blues lost fullback Charles Piutau to injury and the contest on a night when Keven Mealamu stepped in as skipper. He has been thrust into the leader's role again tonight when, in front of family and friends, he will equal Nathan Sharpe's tournament record of 162 Super rugby matches.

It is a remarkable record from Mealamu who continues to defy ageist theories with another World Cup in his sights after a Super rugby debut in 2000 and a test start two years later. All his energy will be on bringing the Blues to the boil to stave off the invaders. They have lost Tony Woodcock and usual skipper Luke Braid but there is still plenty of sting in their forwards as they showed last round against the Crusaders.

Questions are about the rhythm and connections in the backline. Tremendous individual talent is evident, it's whether they can mesh that together for a concerted impact.

On a night which promises trying conditions, there will be a premium on the skills and quality judgment from the halfbacks and five-eighths to control the match.

That comparison has Tawera Kerr-Barlow with Aaron Cruden at the Chiefs in front of the frisky Blues combination of Bryn Hall and new signing Ihaia West.

When the Chiefs had to win last week against the Hurricanes, a side who like to play with the width and expression the Blues also muster, they brought a suffocating game plan which they executed strongly. The forwards squeezed and the backs pressured. It was an exercise in mental muscle and the Chiefs signed off on that deal. They have to do that again if they want to defend their titles while the Blues carry some fanciful hope of a huge win to sneak through to the playoffs.

Does the Chiefs' cause carry more motivation than the Blues'? Or will the hosts summon strength from protecting an unbeaten 2014 Eden Park record to reward departing players, coaches Graham Henry and Mick Byrne and acknowledge Keven Filipo Mealamu's remarkable record?

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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