The Blues' recent winning run has come to an abrupt halt at the hands of the Hurricanes in a pre-season game in Warkworth today, but far more concerning for coach Tana Umaga are the injuries to starting loose forwards Jerome Kaino, Jimmy Tupou and Dalton Papali'i.
The trio left the Mahurangi Rugby Club field in the first half and their conditions were not readily available to Umaga afterwards. But he was worried enough to pull fellow loose forwards Murphy Taramai and Akira Ioane from the line of fire in case they too were injured.
Veteran All Black Kaino and the tall, athletic Tupou would have been almost certain starters for the Blues' first match of the new Super Rugby season against the Highlanders in Dunedin next Friday but Kaino, his left knee already heavily strapped, must be a considerable doubt in particular.
Tupou also appeared to injure a leg but it was not immediately known what Papali'i's issue was.
"As we know, it's not good when they come off," Umaga said. "It's an area where we are a bit thin at at the moment."
Blake Gibson had already signalled he would miss the start of the season through injury but fellow loose forward Antonio Kirikiri could be available, Umaga said, as he surveyed his options.
The Blues had looked good in pre-season to this point, beating the Chiefs in Te Kuiti and claiming the Brisbane Global Rugby 10s title last weekend, but they had little answer to the Hurricanes' pressure after a positive first half.
Penalties, lineout misses, and an inability to retain possession all went against them, suggesting the next few days will be extremely important as they plot a winning start to the season proper.
"There were a few mistakes but we think we can rectify those going into the first game," Umaga said. "Credit to the Hurricanes – they wanted a good hit out and they gave it to us. There were some good lessons there for us."
The Hurricanes board a flight to Australia tomorrow before travelling to South Africa for their match against the Bulls, and the way they finished the match will put pressure on coach Chris Boyd's selection skills.
"Some of the contenders really put their hands up which was great to see," Boyd said.
One of the questions he faces concerns All Black first-five Beauden Barrett, who will join the touring party a day later following two weddings, including his brother Kane's.
Boyd said Barrett could come off the bench against the Bulls but that given the recent lack of game time in the legs of World Rugby's player of the year, he could sit it out altogether.
"He hasn't played any pre-season minutes so he will come off the bench, probably, in Pretoria," Boyd said. "We may choose to make that one of his All Black rest weeks so we'll wait and see how that pans out."
The Blues began with a near full-strength side but it took a moment of magic from left wing Rieko Ioane to give them a 14-12 lead at halftime.
Receiving a poor kick from Hurricanes midfielder Ngani Laumape 70m out, Ioane – the World Rugby's breakout player of the year in 2017 - cut through the defence in a jinking run to the line.
"It's great to have that but you don't want to rely on that all the time, eh?" Umaga said of Ioane's finishing ability.
Hurricanes front rower Chris Eves left the field on a stretcher at the start of the second half but coach Boyd said it was just a "stinger" injury with no long-term damage.
Hurricanes 26 (TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor, Jonah Lowe, Murray Douglas tries. Ihaia West con, Jackson Garden-Bachop 2 cons)
Blues 14 (Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane tries. Bryn Gatland 2 cons).
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