The Blues will have to mark Reece Hodge and Tamati Ellison closely when they host the Rebels in Auckland on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
Tana Umaga's charges have not been the flashiest team around, but they do look like a side building up a head of steam. Coming off a bye, the Blues will still be buoyed by their 23-18 win over the Sharks a fortnight ago, but will know the match against the Rebels presents a different challenge altogether.
With go-to man Rene Ranger ruled out for the rest of the season, George Moala has been tasked with guarding the Blues midfield alongside Englishman Piers Francis, and their battle against Hodge and Ellison will be decisive.
A second-half surge saw the Rebels thump the Cheetahs 36-14 at home last week, with the creative midfield combo scoring three tries between them. A victory will keep the Melbourne side ahead of the chasing pack in the Australian conference, while a win for the Blues will keep them in touching distance of the Highlanders in the New Zealand conference.
In the four games played between these teams, the home side has never lost. The Blues, however, have not faced a Rebels team brimming with this much confidence, which make will make the encounter all the more enticing.
The Blues and Rebels have made one injury-enforced change each, with Moala starting at outside centre for the hosts, while tighthead prop Jamie Hagan earns his maiden start in place of the injured Laurie Weeks.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 2, Rebels 2
In Auckland: Blues 2, Rebels 0
STATS AND FACTS
– These teams have met four times, alternating two wins apiece with all four games being won by the home side.
– Off the back of a 23-18 win against the Sharks in round eight, the Blues will be looking for consecutive wins for the first time since round 17 in 2014.
– The Blues have won five and drawn one of their last eight matches against Australian opposition and are undefeated in their last four home games against teams from Australia.
– The Rebels have won three matches away from home so far this season, the equal most of any Australian team, and a fourth away win would make it their most wins on the road in a season in Super Rugby history.
– The Rebels have travelled to New Zealand for 10 games, including two against the Blues, and have won only once against the Crusaders in round one in 2015.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Blues||Ihaia West (92)||Ihaia West, Melani Nanai, Rieko Ioane, George Moala (2)||Tevita Li (312)||Blake Gibson (81)|
|Rebels||Jack Debreczeni (68)||Reece Hodge (4)||Jonah Placid (340)||Sean McMahon (80)|
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 George Moala, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu/Hoani Matenga, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Nic Mayhew/Namatahi Waa, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Melani Nanai/Matt Duffie.
Rebels – 15 Johan Placid, 14 Sefu Naivalu, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Colby Fainga'a, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Kotaro Matsushima, 23 Sione Tuipulotu.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Brett Johnson (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images