The effectiveness of the Blues’ new-look midfield pairing will be a key factor in Saturday’s clash against the Jaguares in Auckland.
After securing an impressive victory in the opening round of Super Rugby, the Blues have battled to rediscover their best form, and had to settle for a disappointing draw against the Reds in their last outing.
On that occasion, the Blues failed to make the most of their opportunities, while their high penalty count would have been a source of some concern.
The Blues’ inconsistency this season has to call into question the chopping and changing that coach Tana Umaga has regularly enforced with his selections, and this week he has once again made some notable team alterations.
For this Saturday’s clash, Umaga has handed England-born Piers Francis his debut at inside centre, with the Blues fielding their third different midfield combination in five matches.
It’s hoped that Francis will add some improved communication, distribution and defensive organisation to the Blues backline, and his partnership with outside centre Rene Ranger and flyhalf Ihaia West will be crucial to their cause.
The Blues will also need to cope without injured captain Jerome Kaino, with Joseph Edwards having come into the loose trio, while up front Nic Mayhew has been promoted in place of Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Meanwhile, the Jaguares are now back on the road after two games at home, but they will be as desperate as ever to secure a winning result that has also eluded them since the first week of action.
However, they’ve interestingly opted to leave a number of top players back in Argentina, with nine changes having been made to their starting lineup from last weekend.
In that clash against the Stormers, the Jaguares produced an error-riddled performance, and it will be interesting to see how they perform this time around without the likes of experienced Pumas players Nicolás Sánchez and Agustín Creevy.
This is also an important match from a South African perspective, with the Jaguares set to fall even further behind the Sharks and Lions in the Africa 2 conference if they fail to return to winning ways on Saturday.
HEAD TO HEAD
This is the teams’ first meeting
STATS THAT MATTER
– The Blues have won three and drawn one of their last five matches against teams from outside New Zealand.
– The Jaguares have scored 32 of their 49 points in the opening half when playing away from home, while they failed to score a second-half point in their last away fixture against the Sharks.
– The Jaguares have beaten an average of 29.3 defenders per game so far this season, the most of any team and 9.3 more than the Blues (20).
– Blake Gibson has made 59 tackles so far this season, the third most of any player.
– Matias Moroni has won nine turnovers for the Jaguares so far this season, the third most of any player in the competition and more than any New Zealand-based player.
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Nic Mayhew.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Hoani Matenga, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 George Moala.
Jaguares – 15 Ramiro Moyano, 14 Emiliano Boffelli, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Santiago González Iglesias, 9 Martín Landajo (c), 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Baez, 6 Tomás Lezana, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Julián Montoya, 1 Roberto Tejerizo.
Subs: 16 Facundo Bosch, 17 Santiago García Botta, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Juan Cruz Guillemaín, 20 Pablo Matera, 21 Gonzalo Bertramou, 22 Nicolás Sánchez, 23 Joaquin Paz.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)