Down on troops and in serious danger of missing the maiden Super Rugby Aotearoa final, Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu has put the heat on his struggling forward pack to front in a defining trip to Christchurch this week.
Tuipulotu will miss a third successive game with a neck/shoulder injury he suffered in the loss to the Chiefs but he was on hand at training on Wednesday as the Blues went through repeated lineouts and opposed scrums to prepare for a torrid tussle with the Crusaders.
"It's not good but it's one of those things you can't put a timeframe on," Tuipulotu said of his injury. "I'm just waiting until it feels right but it's certainly taking it's time. I'm not trying to rush back into anything. I want to get it right."
With stand-in skipper Tom Robinson and Josh Goodhue (both concussion) also sidelined, the Blues are light on leadership and locking stocks for Sunday's match.
Pressure falls on second-rowers Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and 20-year-old rookie Sam Darry, against his former Canterbury teammates, to deliver a much-improved platform.
Second five-eighth TJ Faiane – strangely unused for much of the early season - is expected to fill the captaincy void.
Last week's loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin, which dropped the Blues to third behind the Chiefs, proved particularly difficult viewing for Tuipulotu.
"I went to my partner's family to watch it and I couldn't hold back," the All Blacks lock said. "It's frustrating not being out there making calls and helping your team out."
Since defeating the Highlanders at Eden Park on March 14, the Blues have managed one patchy win over the Hurricanes from their past four matches to slump into desperation mode in the quest to secure a spot in the final.
If the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes on Friday, Leon MacDonald's men will have to defeat the Crusaders, for the first time in seven years, and overcome the Chiefs in the last round at Eden Park to reach the final. If the Hurricanes upset the in-form Chiefs, then the second spot in the final will come down to that last-round clash in Auckland.
"We've got to treat the next game as our last," Tuipulotu said. "That's where we're at now; we've got our backs against the wall and we've got to work hard to get it right."
The Blues are averaging 12 penalties per match in the past month - conceding two yellow cards and one red in that time - while their much-touted four-All Black propping rotation has failed to deliver set-piece rewards.
Tuipulotu is demanding significant improvements from both areas.
"Our penalty count is ridiculous - we can't operate with those numbers. If we sort that out we can play well but we're not getting our proper game going.
"I'm not happy with our scrum – it's not going forward enough for us to play off and the same thing with our lineout. We're struggling to win some good ball and when we're mauling we're not really getting good pay out of it. When you pull all those things together it adds up to not good performances.
"That's something we really focused on before the season, honing it down to getting our set piece right so we could let our backs play and bring our forwards into the game by carrying and cleaning hard. We've been missing a bit of that, we've been having it in dribs and drabs, so the challenge is to put it all together and keep other teams out."
Following the loss, their second of the season, to the Chiefs in Hamilton last week, the Crusaders are expected to reinstate All Blacks centurion Sam Whitelock and loose forward Cullen Grace, who were both rested, and Codie Taylor after he started off the bench.
"Whenever we play the Crusaders we don't put them on a pedestal too much. We put a lot of focus on our set piece and how we're going to get the ball. They'll be wanting to prove a point, having lost two games, so we've got to be ready for that."
Blues hooker Kurt Eklund will return from suspension this week and 19-year-old Soane Vikena, after starring for the under-20s team, could debut from the bench.