Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Crusade for Blues - Win on road

Luatua confident young pack can deliver the goods in Christchurch.
Steven Luatua will play his 50th game for the Blues against the Crusaders in Christchurch tonight. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Luatua will play his 50th game for the Blues against the Crusaders in Christchurch tonight. Photo / Getty Images

Even at their lowest ebb, the Blues have been able to win at Eden Park and if they are going to become the side they want to be, away victories have to become the norm.

In the past three years, the Blues have won only twice on the road. It's an appalling record and one the 2016 squad are determined to improve.

The Blues can't be taken seriously until they are able to turn up in places such as Christchurch - a city they haven't won at since 2004 - and play with the same pace, intensity and movement as they managed in their opening game at Eden Park.

If this crop of Blues youngsters want to make a statement, tonight would be the perfect time to do it.

The Blues will be confronted by a Crusaders pack that was fearsomely good in the scrum last week against the Chiefs.

Defeat will only have added to the Crusaders' venom and it is a safe bet that the fury will come through the likes of Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read.

The Crusaders will have the primary intention of going through the Blues rather than around them and the collision areas will be where the home side fancy they can take control of the game.

For the likes of Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu and Steven Luatua, tonight's clash presents the ultimate gauge of what they are all about. All three have genuine aspirations to be test players this year and there is no better way to prove their readiness than to stand up to the physical onslaught and ask as many questions of the opposition as they have asked of them.

"They are a formidable forward pack and we have a lot of respect for them," says Luatua who will play his 50th game for the Blues.

"But we have got a forward pack that is going pretty good as well and we have a lot of confidence in our youngsters that we can get the backs some good pill."

Luatua, though, cautions that the real area of focus for the Blues will be improving what they do without the ball. They leaked soft tries to the Highlanders in their opening game and it was only in the final quarter that their defensive line speed and organisation caused the Highlanders problems.

To be so loose again, is to invite disaster but Luatua is confident that even in the immediate aftermath of their opening victory, the squad already had their heads in this week - vowing to improve their defence.

"If we give away 31 points against the Crusaders that's not good enough," says Luatua. "We were fortunate to get away with the win and our fans probably helped us home and especially our bench.

"Against the Crusaders, if you give away 30 points - give them too much of a lead then they will put you in the choke hold and it is hard to get out of that.

"It's a big one. It has been a couple of years [12] since we have won down there and so that is definitely in the back of our minds and that is a huge challenge for us."

Gregor Paul's weekend talking points - Ranger looms as key to breaking through the defence

The Blues and Crusaders look evenly matched across the park in Christchurch tonight and if they both front at set-piece, and on defence, the respective contributions of Rene Ranger and Nemani Nadolo could tip the balance. It feels like this game could be tight, bruising and with a bit of niggle. There's a fair chance it will be decided by a bit of magic to break the stranglehold and while Nadolo has been the Crusaders' saviour so many times in the past, Ranger might receive more ball and running off George Moala could be the man who ends up dominating the contest.

Barrett can atone

Beauden Barrett felt he let himself down in last year's Super Rugby final - lacking composure and ultimately influence. Under pressure, he didn't deliver while his opposite, Lima Sopoaga, did to the extent that it was the Highlander who a few weeks later wore the All Black No10 jersey in an impressive win against the Springboks at Ellis Park. Barrett has got an immediate chance to make amends in Dunedin and show he can use his all-round football skills to navigate his team around the field and control the contest tactically.

Cruden must kick goals

The Chiefs are inevitably going to score a handful of tries against the Lions and create ample kicking practice for someone. That someone should be Aaron Cruden whose only slight weakness is that he still doesn't convince as a confident goal-kicker. His running and tactical control are superb and on virtually every criteria he sits as the best qualified to assume Dan Carter's vacant All Blacks No10 jersey. But goal-kicking is a big box to leave uncertain and a tidy night with the boot would help ease that nagging concern about him.

Tu'ungafasi's tough task

Ofa Tu'ungafasi travelled with the All Blacks to Samoa last year. He's a huge man but doubts persist about his scrummaging. Tu'ungafasi will face a fit, in-form Owen Franks who will look to break him. Scrummaging is a rite of passage sort of thing where the less experienced have to face the best and somehow find a way through the ordeal - surviving on instinct and desire. If the Blues man can hold his own, keep the scrum steady for 65 minutes against Franks, then watch him grow in confidence and push towards test selection.

Naholo spark missing

The Highlanders are going to spend the next eight weeks having to answer one simple question: can they be the same team without Waisake Naholo? The Fijian-born wing brought them the X-factor last year which was the missing piece. The Highlanders had graft, bravery, tactical smarts and honest toil, but Naholo brought them electric finishing and a truckload of points that no one else in the game could have delivered. Without him, do they have enough to finish the Hurricanes under the roof in Dunedin?

- NZ Herald

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