Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Kirwan warns team to keep pressure on Crusaders

Both sides are treating their return clash in Christchurch with intensity of a test match.

Blues player Charles Piutau was part of the winning combination that beat the Crusaders 34-15 in March. But for tomorrow's match the Blues see themselves as underdogs. Photo / Richard Robinson
Blues player Charles Piutau was part of the winning combination that beat the Crusaders 34-15 in March. But for tomorrow's match the Blues see themselves as underdogs. Photo / Richard Robinson

The initial skirmish came on March 1, three weeks before test cricket signed off its programme at the same Eden Park venue. Summer was rolling along as the Blues hosted the Crusaders and gave them a decent 34-15 clout.

The Blues were pumped while the Crusaders were coming into their first action with an under-prepared group after an opening round bye. The margin and scope of the Blues' victory delivered all sorts of curiosity and theory.

That conjecture has followed both sides while results have levelled out, as the Blues carry a slim three-bonus-point lead on the competition heavyweights as they eye tomorrow's return clash in Christchurch.

It has been nine years since the Blues last won in Christchurch, when Peter Sloane coached a team with stacks of All Black talent and the strikepower of Rupeni Caucaunibuca.

Captain Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu played that day and have delivered daily messages about tomorrow's task. Legendary former flanker Michael Jones popped into camp yesterday to deliver his best wishes and interact with the young squad.

It was time, coach John Kirwan said, for his team to regain some of that lost respect: "For me it is a test match and that's the way it should be. We are underdogs going down there with everything against you."

Ignoring the sides' first meeting would be foolish. It gave the rookie Blues more belief they needed to sustain a run at this series and delivered a serious shake to the benchmark Kiwi franchise.

However they have both moved on a great deal with the Blues' buoyant work rewarded this week with eight players named in the wider All Black training group and the Crusaders taking 10 places.

Some will interpret that as a sign of a growing tilt in Super rugby power away from the Crusaders to the Chiefs and Blues.

Others with a deeper understanding of the intrusive demands on the Crusaders will offer a "let's see" directive towards tomorrow's game, which doubles as the 100th for halfback Andy Ellis.

This is the stage of the tournament where the gritty sides get going.

Both Kirwan and Todd Blackadder have drilled their troops, asking them if they are good enough, if they believe in their ability and have the strength to deliver.

This is the start of a three-test stretch for both the Blues and Crusaders, while they also have to deal with players shuffling off for national training camps.

The Blues pitch up for games against the Crusaders, Brumbies and Highlanders, while the Crusaders have the Blues, Chiefs then Waratahs before the series break in June.

For Blues coach Kirwan this match is bigger than a position on the points table: "It does not get bigger than this, it is the oldest rivalry in the game and I love it."

The Crusaders would be at full noise, they would bring the sting they showed against the Brumbies and better execution throughout the match, he said.

Returning captain Kieran Read was a quality rugby player returning to a quality pack but was short of matchplay and the Blues No8 Peter Saili had been a consistent performer this season.

"If we have any weaknesses against an All Black pack they will be focusing [on] that so these young men [Blues] need to step up," said Kirwan.

Mealamu's return from injury would help his young props in a huge task for the front five.

Out in midfield, Jackson Willison would bring more voice and direction with his return to the starting role, while new All Black triallist Francis Saili would deliver some impact from the bench. Skipper Ali Williams was carrying a few niggles and needed some rest but he was not going to miss this match.

The Blues lineout was strong for the first half against the Rebels before the team lost its way. Everyone lost his edge and the setpiece struggles were part of that.

"We can't do that this week," Kirwan warned. "If we relax for a second they will get us in the scrum and the lineout and out in the backs.

"That was a poor reflection of us [against the Rebels] because we let it go mentally and things did not work out. We let the pressure off and played poorly so a lot of things went out the window."

- NZ Herald

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