Blues target injury-ravaged Tahs
June 23, 2011
The Waratahs' Kurtley Beale has been pinpointed as a key threat by the Blues © Getty Images
The new-look Super Rugby Finals Series kicks off at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday night with the Blues playing host to the Waratahs.
The re-vamped post-season introduces the 'qualifier' to the Super Rugby lexicon with the runners-up from the New Zealand Conference and their Australian counterparts going head-to-head for a place in the semi-finals and date with either the Reds or the Stormers depending on the result of the other 'qualifier' between the Crusaders and Sharks.
These two sides met back in April when the Blues claimed a 31-17 victory on home soil and the weight of history is also against the injury-ravaged Waratahs due to the fact that no Australian side has ever won a play-off match offshore.
The Waratahs away record also makes worrying reading with the Sydney-based franchise going down in all overseas games this season - to the Crusaders, Blues, Bulls and Sharks. But the Tahs, who boast the tightest defence in the competition, have won away from home and enter this clash on the back of two victories. In contrast, the Blues snapped a four-game losing streak against the Highlanders in their last run out.
The knock-out element to the game is sure to be a leveller of sorts and with showers and a possible thunderstorm forecast, this game is far from clear-cut.
Blues - Player to Watch: Lock Ali Williams has his sights set on an All Blacks recall and will relish the high-profile nature of the Super Rugby play-offs. Expect him to step up.
Blues - Team News: All Black flanker Daniel Braid will make his long awaited return to the Blues off the bench having been sidelined for three months with a neck injury. In the only other change to the squad that beat the Highlanders last week, a fit-again Alby Mathewson returns to the No.9 shirt in the place of Chris Smylie who drops to the bench.
Waratahs - Player to Watch: The Rebels-bound Wallabies international Kurtley Beale has been one of the competition's stand-out performers this year and shoulders a lot of responsibility having been moved into the No.10 shirt.
Waratahs - Team News: Beale is handed the playmaker role in the absence of the injured Daniel Halangahu (hamstring) and will partner Josh Holmes who steps in for the sidelined Luke Burgess (hand). Also missing are hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau (knee) and tight-head prop Al Baxter (concussion) with their places taken by John Ulugia and Paddy Ryan. Former All Black and Chief Sosene Anesi comes in to start on the left wing and lock Kane Douglas returns from suspension. The Waratahs' injury woes also mean inside back Bernard Foley and hooker Elvis Taione have been called up to the bench and are in line to make their Super rugby debuts.
Key Battle: The under-strength Waratahs front row of Paddy Ryan, John Ulugia, Benn Robinson face a testing day in the office against the Blues John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina.
Trivia: The record of Australian sides away from home in the Super Rugby play-offs is not good with seven defeats from seven matches including the Waratahs' losses to the Crusaders in 2005 and 2008 finals and their semi-final defeats to the Hurricanes in 2006 and Stormers last year.
Stats: The Waratahs have a poor record at Eden Park having won just once - a 27-22 victory in 2009 - in more than 80 years.
"He's X-factor, he's a quality player, my kids like him." - Blues coach Pat Lam admits even his family are fans of Waratahs playmaker Kurtley Beale.
"The positive thing is that we've got a few players coming in who are reasonably fresh and haven't been involved in the campaign for the past 18 weeks and certainly their levels of enthusiasm and energy will be a real positive thing for us." - Waratahs coach Chris Hickey puts a positive spin on his side's injury woes
Prediction: The Blues have rediscovered how to win and look set to outmuscle the Waratahs and extend their rivals' away day woe.
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