Preview: Blues vs Force – 01/04/2017

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The Blues will be looking to continue their impressive run of home form against Australian opposition when they host the Force on Saturday.

They’ve won each of their last seven games at home against Australian sides, surpassing 40 points scored on three occasions in that span. Furthermore, the Auckland outfit are undefeated in their last seven matches against the Force (W6, D1); their only loss to them coming in 2008.

It doesn’t look overly positive on paper for the Perth franchise that’s for sure as the Blues have also won each of their last three home games against them, scoring a total of 111 points across that period. And with the Blues back to winning ways last week, expect them to claim victory.

The Force lost heavily at the Crusaders last time out and come into this game struggling after back-to-back defeats. However, one positive so far in 2017 has been their defence as they have conceded just 5.5 clean breaks per game, fewer than any other team in the competition. Off the tee they are also solid as the reliable Jonno Lance has slotted 10 of his 11 kicks at goal, the best rate of any player to attempt 10 plus shots.

Still though it’s hard to look past the Blues running riot if the weather holds up in Auckland. They boast too much class and with Rieko and Akira Ioane set to be unleashed early in the second half from the bench, the Force could well be in trouble during the closing stages at Eden Park.

Western Force head coach Dave Wessels admits improvements have to be made and after last week’s big loss in Christchurch, highlighted defensive solidity as being key if they are to contain the Blues’ attacking threat.

“We know that to turn around the outcome of last week we must be a lot better in a number of key areas, not least our defence,” Wessels said. “It’s great to have the experience of Dane [Haylett-Petty], Billy [Meakes] and ‘Hodgo’ [Matt Hodgson] back in the side this week.”

He added: “The boys have trained really hard this week under difficult circumstances. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this team.”

The Blues meanwhile will not be overconfident as head coach Tana Umaga expects a tough challenge from their visitors, who will also be motivated by recent speculation that they may be dropped from the Super Rugby competition next year under the suggested new format.

The last time these teams met: The Blues ran out 17-13 winners in Perth last year as first-half tries from Jerome Kaino and Tevita Li saw them to victory. Matt Hodgson hit back for the Force with a try before Ben Tapuai’s penalty on 63 minutes cut the gap to four points. But that was how things ended at nib Stadium as the visitors held on despite a late Force lineout five metres out that saw them knock-on.

Team news: The Blues have stuck with a largely unchanged starting line-up this weekend. There are only two changes from the starting line-up that beat the Bulls last week. Young flanker Blake Gibson gets a break after a highly physical game against the Bulls, allowing North Harbour loose forward Murphy Taramai with his second start. Coach Tana Umaga is also trying a new midfield option, with former New Zealand U20 player TJ Faiane getting his first Super Rugby start at 12, with George Moala moving out to 13 and Rieko Ioane to come off the bench.

The Western Force have made several changes to the matchday 23 that will run out in Auckland. Tetera Faulkner comes back into the starting front-row, replacing Jermiane Ainsley, who dislocated his elbow against the Crusaders last week. After making his Super Rugby debut Richie Arnold has been given his first start in the second-row, while Matt Hodgson comes into the familiar number seven shirt. Inside centre Bill Meakes comes back into the squad in the number 12 jersey, after recovering from an ankle complaint, with Marcel Brache shifting to outside centre. Curtis Rona is unavailable for the game after suffering a concussion against the Crusaders. Dane Haylett-Petty starts at full-back.

Form: The Blues ended a three-game losing streak last week when they beat the Bulls 34-18 in Auckland. That was their first win since the opening day victory at the Rebels and they will hope it’s the springboard for another success, possibly with a bonus point, this weekend.

Meanwhile, Western Force have won one of their four games so far, which came in Round 2 against the Reds. Since then they have lost to the Brumbies and Crusaders, the latter being a 45-17 hammering in Christchurch. They return to Perth next week for a home clash with the Kings.

Previous results:

2016: Blues won 17-13 in Perth
2015: Blues won 41-24 in Auckland
2014: Blues won 40-14 in Perth
2012: Blues won 32-9 in Auckland
2011: 22-22 draw in Perth
2010: Blues won 38-17 in Auckland
2009: Blues won 25-19 in Perth
2008: Force won 27-17 in North Harbour

The teams:

Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi or Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Rieko Ioane

Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Chance Peni, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Jono Lance, 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Richie Arnold, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Ben Daley
Replacments: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Pek Cowan, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Richard Hardwick, 20 Kane Koteka, 21 Michael Ruru, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Robbie Coleman

Date: Saturday, April 1
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 17:15 local (05:15 GMT)
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)


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