There is a settled look to the Blues side for their Super Rugby match against the Sharks at Eden Park on Saturday.
Tana Umaga has made only two changes from the side that lost narrowly to the Chiefs last weekend.
Lolagi Visinia returns from injury to regain his place at full-back, with his kicking game considered important for this match, despite his replacement Melani Nanai starring with a superb solo try.
Super Rugby centurion Tanerau Latimer is bracketed at loose forward with Northland’s Kara Pryor.
If selected, Latimer will make his debut for the Blues after being sidelined with a long-term calf injury while it would be a first start for Pryor, who has four Blues caps this year off the bench.
The Blues will make a final decision on Friday after checking how Latimer comes through today’s sessions, after training fully with the team since last week.
Counties Manukau back Piers Francis will again start outside Ihaia West in the midfield, with scans clearing him of any neck and spinal injury concerns after he was stretchered off early in the game against the Chiefs as a precautionary measure.
The team will wear black armbands in recognition of the passing of former Blues lock Kurtis Haiu with a moment’s silence before the start of the game.
The game is also the anniversary of the original Super 12 final in 1996 when the Blues beat the Natal Sharks, with a number of players attending and Joeli Vidiri to deliver the match ball on to the field.
The Sharks need their scrum to lay the foundation for an improved attacking performance against the Blues in Auckland on Saturday.
Before last weekend’s game against the Lions, the Sharks spoke of their desire to improve their execution and decision-making in order to become more effective with ball in hand.
Despite this intention, some poor option-taking denied them a potential early try that could well have changed the nature of the game, while they were comprehensively outmuscled at scrum time.
A sequence of scrum penalties in the first half robbed them of a prime launch pad for attack, with the Lions making the most of their opportunities from the resultant possession.
The Sharks have made a number of changes to their pack for Saturday’s game against the Blues, with Lourens Adriaanse notably set to start at tighthead prop, while there is some extra weight in the second row as Stephan Lewies returns from injury.
While the Blues are certainly not as renowned as the Lions for their scrumming ability, the Sharks should not take them lightly in this regard, especially with powerful All Black Charlie Faumuina in the front row.
However, if the Sharks can get their set piece functioning well again, there is a definite intent for them to play a bit more rugby. Away from the spotlight back in South Africa, there is also an opportunity for the Durban-based side to begin to play with a bit more freedom.
As a side that always embraces the experiences of touring, the Sharks have to come out of their shells on attack, but they will also be aware that they still need to do so in the right areas of the field. There is also the possibility of some rain in Auckland on Saturday, which may well suit the Sharks, but it will also serve to heighten the importance of the scrums.
After a draw and then back-to-back losses, the Sharks have now slipped two points behind the Lions in the Africa 2 conference, so it’s crucial for them to arrest their slide after a solid start to the season.
From here the Sharks will play the Highlanders and Chiefs before returning home to face the Hurricanes, and then heading off again to Argentina where the Jaguares await. It’s a nightmare schedule.
It makes Saturday’s result all the more important in a season that hangs precariously in the balance.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Sharks 14, Blues 8
In Auckland: Sharks 6, Blues 5
STATS AND FACTS
– The Sharks have won their last 10 matches against the Blues, although six of those 10 wins have been by seven points or less.
– The Sharks are undefeated in their last four matches away from home in Super Rugby (won three, drawn one).
– However, the Sharks have lost on each their last three trips to New Zealand, with two of those defeats coming by more than 30 points.
– The Blues have averaged 17 minutes and 54 seconds in possession of the ball so far this season, the most of any team and over four minutes more than the Sharks (13:51).
– The Sharks have conceded just two second-half tries this season, three fewer than any other team.
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 Tanerau Latimer or Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hoani Matenga, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Kara Pryor or Joe Edwards, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 George Moala
Sharks: 15 Willie Le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Daniel du Preez, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c)
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane
Date: Saturday, April 16
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (15:05 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Craig Joubert, Paul Williams
TMO: Ben Skeen