The Blues face a daunting task when they take on the defending champions, the Hurricanes, in their New Zealand derby in Auckland on Saturday.
The home side have shown signs of improvement this year but unfortunately that has not been against their New Zealand counterparts as all their victories this season have been against foreign opposition.
The Blues have won just one of their last nine home games against fellow New Zealand teams, though each of their last four such fixtures have been decided by no more than the value of an unconverted try.
Last weekend, they dominated large periods against the Highlanders in Dunedin but ran out of steam towards towards the end and eventually suffered a 26-20 defeat.
Despite that result, Blues head coach Tana Umaga said the team is looking forward to taking on the champions.
“We are under no illusions that the Hurricanes will pose a tough test and we will need to be at our best for the whole 80 minutes,” he said.
“We continued to make progress last week and for much of the game played well but could not quite get across the line. We need to continue that improvement in all aspects, especially our decision-making at critical moments.”
A big concern for the hosts is that they have failed to score a second-half try in three of their last five Super Rugby games and each of those three was against New Zealand opposition.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will be quietly confident as they have won their last four games against the Blues, the longest winning streak by either team in this fixture since the Blues won the first eight games between the teams.
The men from Wellington have been defensively solid this year as only once in their last nine away games against New Zealand opposition have the Hurricanes conceded more than two tries.
Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd is expecting a tough match against the Blues.
“Their results probably haven’t been what they’d like, but you only have to look at the team sheet to know they have attacking threats across the park,” he said.
“We will need to be a lot better on defence this week to come out on the right side of the ledger.”
The Hurricanes come into the match second on the New Zealand Conference table – behind the Crusaders – with five wins and one defeat, while the Blues are in fifth place with three wins and four losses.
The last time the teams met: The Hurricanes claimed a hard-fought come-from-behind 37-27 win when these sides met in Wellington last year. The Blues led 24-17 at half-time but a superb second half display secured the win for the ‘Canes. Vaea Fifita led the way for the Hurricanes with a brace of tries and Reggie Goodes, Dane Coles also dotted down. Jerome Kaino scored two tries for the Blues and Kara Pryor scored their other five-pointer.
Team news: 33-Test All Black Sonny Bill Williams will start at inside centre for the Blues. Williams’ selection is the only change to the starting line-up from last week’s match against the Highlanders. The All Black front row of Pauliasi Manu, skipper James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina are backed by promising young locks Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti. Steven Luatua is retained at number eight and joins fellow All Black star Jerome Kaino and Blake Gibson in the loose forwards. Williams will make his first start for the Blues in the number 12 jersey with Rieko Ioane at ouside centre, which means All Black George Moala will come off the bench. Another All Black to provide impact off the bench is prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, and if he plays, he will move to within one game of his 50th cap for the Blues.
Super Rugby’s leading try scorer Vince Aso and the Savea brothers, Ardie and Julian, will return to the Hurricanes starting XV. Aso will start at outside centre in place of Matt Proctor, who will miss the match due to concussion, while Julian Savea reclaims his place on the left wing after being given a week off. The backline re-jig means Cory Jane shifts into the reserves with Wes Goosen switching to the right wing following a strong performance against the Waratahs. In the forwards, Ardie Savea returns at number eight two weeks after straining his calf, pushing Reed Prinsep back to the reserves where he takes the place of Toa Halafihi.
Form: The Blues have been frustratingly inconsistent this season. They started their campaign with a convincing win over the Rebels and have also gone on to beat the Bulls and Western Force but it is their poor form against fellow New Zealand franchises which proved costly as they have lost to the Highlanders twice, as well as the Crusaders and Chiefs.
The Hurricanes have made a fine start to their title defence. They thrashed the Sunwolves in their first fixture and also claimed victories against the Rebels, Highlanders, Reds and Waratahs with their only blip being a Round 2 loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Prediction: This should be a thrilling encounter between two entertaining sides but the champions have too much class and will take the spoils, albeit by a narrow margin. Hurricanes by five.
2016: Hurricanes won 37-27 in Wellington
2016: Hurricanes won 23-19 in Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 29-5 in Auckland
2015: Hurricanes won 30-23 in Palmerston North
2014: Blues won 37-24 in Auckland
2014: Hurricanes won 39-20 in Wellington
2013: Blues won 28-6 in Auckland
2013: Blues won 34-20 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 35-19 in Wellington
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 George Moala
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Cory Jane
Date: Saturday, April 15
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown, Paul Williams
TMO: Ben Skeen