Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Rieko Ioane receives chance in Ranger's absence

Rieko Ioane impressed on his return to the Blues in the pre-season this year. Photo / Getty
Rieko Ioane impressed on his return to the Blues in the pre-season this year. Photo / Getty

The Blues have lost a potential game-breaker in the form of wing Rene Ranger for their match against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday, but coach Tana Umaga, ever keen to shake things up in terms of his team selections, has the luxury of being able to name Sevens sensation Rieko Ioane in place of the All Black.

Ioane, who will turn 19 tomorrow, announced himself on the Sevens stage last year with a standout performance in Wellington, and continued that free-running, tackle-breaking form with Gordon Tietjens' team in the Wellington and Sydney tournament triumphs this year.

The 1.89m and 103kg outside back impressed on his return to the Blues in the pre-season this year, and will get his chance for the first time in a competition game in the Suncorp Stadium cauldron, a match which his side will be favourites to win, due partly to their improvements this year, but also the woeful form of the Reds, who sacked coach Richard Graham after two matches.

Should the Blues prevail they will break an abysmal away record which stretches back to June 28, 2014, the date they last won on the road (a 40-14 victory over the Force in Perth).

The absence of Ranger, who scored a stunning try in the corner at Eden Park in the 23-19 defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend, but struggled to get into the match otherwise, has been put down by the Blues to managing his return from last year's neck surgery.

However, while the six-forwards, two-backs split on the reserves bench has also counted against him (with Umaga naming halfback Billy Guyton and first-five Matt McGahan there), Ranger was seen earlier this week with a heavily-strapped right shoulder.

The returning support base of the Blues - both of the team's matches at Eden Park have attracted crowds in excess of 20,000 - will hope for a speedy recovery and return for the 29-year-old, because while his form after his arrival home from French rugby hasn't quite matched expectations, he has the experience and physical presence to make a real difference to Umaga's backline.

Apart from the Ioane change, Umaga has stuck with the same backline, which means Bryn Hall and Ihaia West get another chance to cement their combination, with George Moala and Male Sa'u in the midfield, Tevita Li on the left and Lolagi Visinia at fullback.

Umaga has brought back lock Patrick Tuipulotu, with Steven Luatua - a starting lock last week - back at No8, and Akira Ioane on the reserves bench. Prop Charlie Faumuina again starts after his impressive performance over 80 minutes against the Hurricanes.

The reserves bench, with the Blues putting the majority of their resources into the pack, is another indication of Umaga's willingness to change things from week to week.

Forwards coach Glenn Moore said the move allowed for the reinforcing of his team's big men who could struggle in the conditions. The forecast for Brisbane is a hot and humid 31degC on Saturday.

"We know it's going to be hot and that there is going to be high humidity over there," he said. "The forwards have had high workloads in those games and we want to have those options open to us to us that bench."

Moore said it was possible loose forward replacement Akira Iaone, another New Zealand Sevens player and a brother of Rieko, could be pressed into service on the wing if required.

Blues lock Josh Bekhuis, meanwhile, will become just the fifth player to reach the milestone of 100 caps in Super Rugby and 100 caps in the national provincial competition when he takes the field.

Caleb Ralph, Justin Collins, Jimmy Cowan and Chris King are the others to reach the milestone. Bekhuis will leave for French club Lyon after this season.

Blues team to play the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Saturday:

Lolagi Visinia, Rieko Ioane, Male Sa'u, George Moala, Tevita Li, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall, Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson, Jerome Kaino (c), Josh Bekhuis, Patrick Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Ofa Tu'ungafasi.

Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Nic Mayhew, Sione Mafileo, Hoani Matenga, Kara Pryor, Akira Ioane, Billy Guyton, Matt McGahan.

- NZ Herald

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