Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Big win triggers selection issues for Blues

Patrick Tuipulotu looks fit enough to slot back into the Blues pack. Photo / Photosport
Patrick Tuipulotu looks fit enough to slot back into the Blues pack. Photo / Photosport

As expectations of the Blues inevitably rise after their brilliance in dismantling the Rebels in Melbourne, the spotlight before their next, tougher, assignment against the Chiefs in Hamilton will fall on whether coach Tana Umaga changes his winning team, and in particular whether he selects All Blacks Patrick Tuipulotu and Jerome Kaino.

The two key forwards were never in the frame for the round one match at AAMI Park - Tuipulotu got the green light to train with the franchise only a fortnight ago following the upheaval of his positive, and then negative, drugs test, and Kaino was never going to be available due to his managed return in accordance with the wishes of the All Blacks coaches.

Kaino, the Blues co-captain, was targeting a comeback in Friday's match at Waikato Stadium, but he requested time off following the death of his good friend and former All Black teammate Sione Lauaki, and Umaga might be wary of pitching him in against the likes of Liam Messam too soon.

The 33-year-old isn't as fit as he would like - his struggles in a running test alongside fellow co-captain James Parsons and Tuipulotu after the Blues trained last week were obvious - and coach Umaga suggested Kaino's return remained a work in progress. In contrast, the 24-year-old Tuipulotu, forced to train by himself all pre-season as he endured the uncertainty of a positive test for an undisclosed performance-enhancing drug before the vindication of a negative B sample, looked extremely fit and powerful.

His involvement against Dave Rennie's men, who won their opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin, looks more likely, and it's possible he could start in the second row alongside Jimmy Tupou. A new signing from the Crusaders, Tupou captained the team against the Rebels and looked strong and decisive with and without the ball.

Parsons remains on a comeback from concussion, so if Kaino doesn't start in Hamilton, Tupou will keep the captaincy.

Umaga is unlikely to change his backline, which performed well in the 56-18 win over the Rebels - highlighted by centre Rieko Ioane's hat-trick of tries, the spark of halfback Augustine Pulu and the organisation of fullback Michael Collins.

Significantly, there were no injuries for the Blues, but the same can't be said for the Highlanders, who were disappointing in their defeat by the Chiefs in Dunedin, a 24-15 loss made worse by the concussion of fullback Ben Smith, which will keep him out for at least two weeks - matches against the Crusaders and Blues.

His rival for the black No 15 jersey, Israel Dagg, meanwhile, was instrumental in sparking the Crusaders victory over the Brumbies in Christchurch. Dagg, who recently re-committed to New Zealand Rugby for the next three years, had two try assists and looks as fit and keen in his 100th Super Rugby match as he ever has at this time of year.

His influence in Scott Robertson's first match as Crusaders coach was critical - the man known as Razor would have endured an uncomfortable final 10 minutes on Saturday night when his otherwise excellent first-five Richie Mo'unga missed a penalty from in front which would have given his side some breathing space. The Crusaders held on to win 17-13. Mo'unga's slip-up might be excused after it was found he fractured a bone in his left hand during the match. The injury will likely rule him out for 6-8 weeks.

- NZ Herald

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