Ahead of last week's game and after that win over the Highlanders, I made a note of how important it was to keep expectations and excitement in check. Tana Umaga has something up his sleeve, from the outside and after two team-lists, I reckon Tana is working his way into the season, slowly but surely as he figures out how his best team looks.
Sure Ihaia West and Bryn Hall were good last week, maybe Billy Guyton and Matt McGahan trained the house down over summer and Tana just needs to have a look at both combinations against tough kiwi opposition?
The depth and competition for places doesn't quite tick all the boxes for me though, not when Blues teams of the past (a rather horrible past) have had inconsistent selections as a staple. That's the main worry with Tana's selections, but Tana's mana has me happily following his lead and it appears as though Tana is more concerned with rebuilding the Blues from the ground up over the course of multiple seasons than a couple of flashy wins.
That's why I love Tana.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Quentin MacDonald, Sione Mafileo, Patrick Tuipulotu, Josh Bekhuis, Jerome Kaino (C), Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua; Billy Guyton, Matt McGahan, Tevita Li, George Moala, Rene Ranger, Melani Nanai, Matt Duffie.
Reserves: James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Charlie Faumuina, Akira Ioane, Kara Pryor, Bryn Hall, Ihaia West, Male Sa’u.
The Crusaders present a unique challenge and Auckland vs Canterbury sport always gets the goosebumps firing on all cylinders. The Blues are coming off a tight victory over the defending champs and the Crusaders are coming off a niggly loss to their rivals the Chiefs, with the Crusaders and Chiefs sharing an epic physical contest which has me eager to see how the Blues match the Crusaders in that department.
Having Jerome Kaino back is a huge boost for this game and he will lead our physicality along with Blake Gibson. We've got no reason to think that Gibson won't have a great season, but I'll be very interested in how he performs after such an impressive game last week against a team who will have him marked as a player to dominate.
I would rather see Akira Ioane than Steven Luatua at No.8 but Ioane's Sevens commitments mean the Blues can't rely on his services. Luatua offers a lineout presence and along with Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu and Josh Bekhuis the Blues could target lineout time to upset the Crusaders or at least spark some niggle.
Quentin MacDonald has big boots to fill as James Parson was excellent around the park last week. Our top front-row includes both Parsons and Charlie Faumuina in it and both of them are on the bench, which makes this a huge game for MacDonald but more for a youngster like Sione Mafileo. A game against the Highlanders and an away trip to Canterbury is a good barometer for a young prop.
From what we saw in Billy Guyton when he came on last week, the Blues shouldn't lose too much. He's a crisp passer and his lightning around the ruck and given the players around them, I don't think Guyton and McGahan will have too much trouble in doing their job for this team. Guyton just has to get the backs quick ball and keep defenders honest with the odd run, while McGahan's core job will be controlling the game with his boot and he's got the luxury of having the George Moala and Rene Ranger combination outside him.
McGahan just has to get Moala and Ranger the ball, executing the right plays and the right time and job done. I'd also suggest that Matt Duffie gets his first Super Rugby start with McGahan at first-five via their Melbourne Storm connection, they have played with each other before and know of each other since their Auckland schoolboy rugby days.
This is our first look at Duffie in the big time and I'm excited. Lolagi Visinia apparently has a niggling injury but I reckon the fullback situation is similar to that at haflback and first-five where Tana has options and simply wants to see all the options get game time early on in the season against tough kiwi opposition.
Duffie is a gun runner of the footy so expect the Blues to counter-attack as much as possible. How Duffie supports McGahan with kicking will be very interesting as they are the two main kickers in this team and the biggest question mark hovering over Duffie is regarding his kicking game, which Visinia covers well.
Will Duffie run more than he kicks?
Will Duffie kick accurately and long?
With Tevita Li on one side and Melani Nanai on the other, along with either Moala or Ranger (or both) who will drop back in support of Duffie, Duffie will have beastly ball-runners who will be eager to attack with ball in hand. Don't be surprised to see the Blues try hit the Crusaders after they clear their lines, kicking long into the waiting arms of Duffie and his army of beasts.
If there was ever a time to touch up the Crusaders, it's now. Despite the changes Tana has made for the Crusaders, the Blues still have a better team with more weapons and they are coming off a fine defensive performance that caught my eye.
I've got the Blues to win, which could send kiwi rugby into a frenzy. I'll forever be preaching that expectations be kept in check, especially as the Crusaders just don't look that good.