Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Patient Faiane rewarded for hard work after two years out injured

TJ Faiane. Photo / photosport
TJ Faiane. Photo / photosport

The Blues have had a midfield shuffle, bringing in TJ Faiane to partner George Moala against the Force in a move that sends Rieko Ioane to the bench and alludes to the team's enormous attacking potential.

It's a selection that acknowledges the need to give the hard working Faiane his first real taste of Super Rugby after battling back from two knee reconstructions, and to manage the workload of Ioane, who has only just turned 20 and has had a busy past 18 months.

It's apparent, too, given that the Blues have resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes - resting the bruised and sore Blake Gibson and returning Charlie Faumuina to the starting team being the only other differences from last week - that coach Tana Umaga is expecting the Force to show plenty of heart at the end of a week where they have been tipped to be axed from next year's competition.

Umaga is also conscious that having finished so strongly against the Bulls last week, the Blues need to build on their momentum and post an 80-minute performance against the Force - hence the desire for selection continuity, with the exception of Faiane, who has had to show incredible resilience to make it as far as he has.

A product of the St Kentigern rugby factory - at a time when the Pakuranga school were almost impossible to beat - he was tipped to be the next great midfield star.

Further confirmation came when he made the New Zealand under-20s and Auckland squads but 2015 was written off due to a badly damaged knee that had to be rebuilt. He returned to action only to suffer the same fate and 2016 disappeared, too.

Blues coach Tana Umaga, as one of the professional era's best midfielders, is about as good a judge of talent there is, and was willing to pick 21-year-old Faiane in this year's squad despite his lack of football in the past two years.

Faiane's promotion to the starting team is further reward for his performances off the bench in recent weeks and also driven by Umaga's desire to see if his protege can deliver with a No 12 on his back.

"TJ is the consummate team man," said Umaga. "He brings a lot of energy and does all he can for his team and teammates. He's very studious around the game and has all the skills we like in a 12. TJ has been good for us coming off the bench. He has done everything we've asked of him and he's been a year in the making.

"He's earned the right to have a crack. With the amount of games Rieko has had, it gives us an opportunity to see TJ and we believe he has the ability to play at this level for a long time and the teams he has made previous to this shows that.

"And George is playing well, too. We've got a lot of midfielders and trying to fit them into two spots is impossible."

However hard the midfield selections are now, they will become harder when Sonny Bill Williams returns. The veteran midfielder still doesn't have a scheduled return date from his Achilles tendon surgery.

The hope is that he will appear some time in April but Umaga said it is a day-by-day scenario with Williams as he builds his running load and then waits to see how his body reacts. The Blues are eager to get him back but won't push him too soon.

Williams' direct running, aggressive defence and offloading game will open multiple attacking avenues for the Blues. Once he recovers, though, the challenge for the Blues is going to be finding the right combination of players across their backline to get the best out of their attacking game.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 29 May 2017 17:51:55 Processing Time: 18ms