Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Umaga rolls dice again as he seeks midfield answers

Blues coach Tana Umaga is still searching for his best backline. Photo / Getty Images
Blues coach Tana Umaga is still searching for his best backline. Photo / Getty Images

Five games into the season, Blues coach Tana Umaga is still searching for his best backline.

Midfielder Piers Francis is the latest to be given an opportunity as Umaga attempts to find the right formula to capitalise on the chances his team are making but can't seem to finish off.

Francis, named at second-five despite a lack of recent game time -- he has played 100 minutes of club rugby over the past fortnight following a return from a foot injury -- is seen, alongside centre Rene Ranger, as the right man to add voice, vision and organisation against the Jaguares at QBE North Harbour Stadium on Saturday. It will be the 25-year-old Englishman's first Super Rugby match.

The Jaguares, in their first match in New Zealand after joining the competition with the Kings and Sunwolves this season, are without several of their best players, including inspirational hooker Agustin Creevy, but have the ambitious, pressing game which will put the Blues under pressure at a venue they haven't won at since 2013.

Umaga admitted his side are down on confidence. He will be desperate for a victory because with the other New Zealand teams pulling away, the acid is starting to drop on to his team.

For him, the combinations aren't quite building and whether that's due to the weekly changes -- wing Tevita Li is the only back to start every match -- it's difficult to know.

After starting so brightly against the Highlanders, the Blues crashed to the Crusaders in Christchurch with a vastly different backline, rallied in a defeat back at Eden Park against the Hurricanes and staggered to a draw against the struggling Reds in Brisbane.

Male Sa'u and George Moala are the big casualties this week. Sa'u, who has started three of the Blues' four games, has been left out altogether, with Moala dropped to the bench.

Umaga talked about combinations today but when asked if his backline tinkering was putting those combinations at risk, he replied: "Our 9s and 10s are the same. Our back three is the same as the last game. It's pretty much the same group. With our midfield we just have to find the right balance and try to capitalise on these opportunities that we create and that's what we're doing."

He can point to the fact that the Blues probably should have beaten the Hurricanes -- they had all the ball and territory in the final, frantic minutes. But they blew what should have been a victory against the Reds and nearly lost it, only to claw their way back for a draw with a penalty after the final hooter.

"For us it's to re-focus on what we're doing -- [we can't] lose sight of that, we must keep faith in it," Umaga said. "It [Blues game plan] has created a lot of opportunities for us. If we do go back to that Reds game we just missed a lot of opportunities. Good sides take those. Being a young side, confidence is a big thing and if we can hold some of those passes and take some of those opportunities our confidence will grow."

Asked about the New Zealand teams pulling away from them -- the Chiefs lead the way with 19 points, with the Highlanders (18), Hurricanes (15) and Crusaders (14 and with a game in hand) chasing -- Umaga said of the Blues (7 and with a game in hand): "We can't control that other than our performance on the field."

Otherwise, the Blues players appear to be in good spirits. Skipper James Parsons said the side had enjoyed a physical training session today and that prop Nic Mayhew, his North Harbour teammate making his first start at this level, bench-pressed 185kg earlier this week.

"That's pretty impressive tin and he thinks he can get a bit more up there. It's something that excites him," Parsons said.

Blues team to play the Jaguares at QBE North Harbour Stadium on Saturday kick-off 7.35pm is:

Lolagi Visinia, Rieko Ioane, Rene Ranger, Piers Francis, Tevita Li, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall, Steven Luatua, Blake Gibson, Joe Edwards, Josh Bekhuis, Patrick Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons (c), Nic Mayher. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Sam Prattley, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Hoani Matenga, Akira Ioane, Billy Guyton, Matt McGahan, George Moala.

Jaguares: Ramiro Moyano, Emiliano Boffelli, Matias Moroni, Jeronimo de la Fuente, Manuel Montero, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Martin Landajo (c), Leonardo Senatore, Rodrigo Baez, Tomas Lezana, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Ramiro Herrera, Julian Montoya, Roberto Tejerizo. Reserves: Facundo Bosch, Santiago Garcia Botta, Enrique Pieretto, Juan Cruz Guillemain, Pablo Matera, Gonzalo Bertranou, Nicolas Sanchez, Joaquin Paz.

- NZ Herald

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