The Blues have received a timely boost of front row firepower ahead of their match against the burly Bulls on Sunday morning, with veterans Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock set to make their first starts for the team this season.
After playing 30 minutes off the bench last week, the Blues and All Blacks centurions have been promoted to the starting XV and will form an all-All Black front row alongside Charlie Faumuina.
“Our young guns are coming through and getting better and better but to have the experience of an all-All Blacks front row is really important in Africa,” Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan said.
“The Africans love scrumming, they’re big men so Kevvie and Woody are already looking forward to the challenge, and of course Charlie has been with us from the beginning and just continues to grow week by week.
“The scrum will be an important part of our game and we need to be at least competitive if not dominant there so it’s a big game for us.”
The only other change to the starting XV comes at lock where Liaki Moli has been selected ahead of Patrick Tuipulotu.
“Patrick had a really good first start last week but we just want to temper his growth and make sure we protect him a wee bit,” Kirwan said.
“Also Liaki is chomping at the bit and I think he is made for this type of game. It’ll be a tough encounter and Patrick will come on in the second half.”
The Blues backline remains unchanged, with Kirwan rewarding young guns Simon Hickey and Tevita Li for their impressive performances against the Crusaders.
“Simon played with great confidence last week so we’ll leave him in there and we think he’ll be fine,” Kirwan said.
“He shows a maturity beyond his age and like I said last week he’s come through the grades, he’s been that size growing up in an Auckland competition so he’s tough enough. Nothing really flusters him, he stands up in front of the team and presents so he’s got that maturity which I think is important for that position.”
Kirwan said it would be a challenging game for Li who will no doubt be peppered with high bombs, but he said the 18-year-old would be up for the challenge.
“He ignited us last week. He’s got a feeling for the game that’s quite special. He just seems to be one of those guys who pops up at the right place.
“He’s really alert, really keen and just loves being out there and it’s fantastic. He just plays, he’s a pleasure to have around and he’s enjoying it so we need him to take that confidence into the game. It’ll be a big game for him from a high ball perspective. The Bulls will maul and they will kick high balls, that’s how they play so it’ll be another type of game for him.”
Benji Marshall has been omitted from the match day 23, with Chris Noakes given the nod as replacement first five due to his tactical kicking smarts which may well be crucial on the Highveld.
“Benji is obviously disappointed,” Kirwan said.
“We’ve got a programme for Benji and I’ve said I’m not going to rush it and it’s really important that we slowly bring him into the game. I think what you’ve probably seen with Israel Foloau this year is he’s so much better from last year’s experience so I think we need to bring Benji into the game slowly but at some stage we need to give him a start and just get him out there.
“It’s important he’s not known as the guy who comes on there and solves the problems when we’re down, he needs to be a part of this football team and we need to give him a start at some stage, I just need to make sure he’s ready for that.”
After playing two games against New Zealand opposition this season, Kirwan said the Bulls would pose a completely different challenge and that his team needed to brace themselves for a bruising encounter.
“The difference when you play Africa is the brutality of the contact, they’re big men, they drive sometimes in twos, when they’ve got the ball they love the physicality of the rucks so they’ll fly into them and you just need to be ready for that.
“They play a very simple game that they know very well – lots of mauling, lots of high kicks and lots of pressure underneath that so we just need to be ready and make sure we can combat that.
“I think the game plan and the way we play will challenge them, we just need to be up for the physical battle.î
The Blues team to face the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria on Sunday morning (4.05am NZT) is: