Openside flank Blake Gibson can help the Blues win the physical battle against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The 20-year-old announced his arrival on the Super Rugby stage last week with a Man of the Match performance against the Highlanders at Eden Park.
In the 26th minute, Gibson received possession just outside his 22, got past Dan Pryor and Lima Sopoaga, and then ran straight over All Blacks fullback Ben Smith to score a sensational try.
The No 7 would finish the match with 41 running metres from five carries, 10 tackles and three turnovers as the Blues shocked the champions 33-31 to record their first win under new coach Tana Umaga.
Gibson played for the Baby Blacks at last year's U20 World Championship, but made just one appearance for Auckland in the national provincial championship after sustaining a knee injury in their first fixture. The hard work he put in to get back to full fitness was rewarded last Friday and his challenge now is to perform at that same level week in and week out.
Blake and the Blues' next test will be provided by the Crusaders, who lost 27-21 to the Chiefs in Christchurch last weekend. However, the Saders forwards impressed against the Chiefs, and returning Blues captain Jerome Kaino expects a big battle up front.
'Their intensity and physicality will ramp up a little bit just because they'll be a bit grumpy [about their opening-round loss],' he said.
Kaino's selection at blindside flank is one of six changes to the Blues' starting XV.
Umaga has taken a gamble by replacing halfbacks Bryn Hall and Ihaia West, both of whom impressed against the Highlanders, with Billy Guyton and the uncapped Matt McGahan. Rene Ranger will start at outside centre, while Matt Duffie will make his first appearance for the Blues at fullback. Up front, former Crusaders hooker Quentin MacDonald starts ahead of James Parsons, who captained the team last week.
Saders coach Todd Blackadder has retained his starting XV, with Pete Samu replacing Reed Prinsep in the only change to the bench.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Crusaders 16, Blues 11
In Christchurch: Crusaders 10, Blues 3
STATS AND FACTS
– The Crusaders have won each of their last three matches against the Blues, conceding 15 points or fewer in each of those three games.
– The Crusaders' opening-round loss to the Chiefs means they will be aiming to avoid consecutive Super Rugby losses for the first time since round 10, 2015.
– The Blues won a home round-one fixture for the first time since 2011 and will now be hunting for back-to-back victories in Super Rugby for the first time since round 17, 2014.
– The Crusaders boasted a perfect ruck success rate last time out, winning all 40 in their match against the Chiefs in round one. They were the only team to maintain a 100% ruck success on their own ball.
– The Blues won 14 lineouts in the opening round, while only the fourth most of any team it was the most of any team who didn’t lose a lineout in round one.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Crusaders||Richie Mo’unga (16)||David Keatau Havili, Richie Mo’unga (1)||Richie Mo’unga (74)||Owen Franks (10)|
|Blues||Ihaia West (18)||Melani Nanai (1)||Melani Nanai (59)||Blake Gibson (10)|
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Jone Macilai, 13 Sean Wainui, 12 Kieron Fonotia, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Tim Boys, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Samuel Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Blues – 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Matt McGahan, 9 Billy Guyton, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino (c), 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Quentin MacDonald, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 James Parsons, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Male Sa'u.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images