Hurting, hungry Blues could prove bruising battle for Sharks

2012-04-13 00:00

THE wounded Blues, under fire from all sides, will be at their most desperate when they take on the Sharks in their Super Rugby outing at Eden Park in Auckland today.

The Blues started the season with high hopes — and a host of All Blacks — but injury, poor form and a lack of confidence has left them struggling at the foot of the log with one win in six matches.

But their problems in the most troubled of seasons go way beyond their on-field results with in-fighting in the squad and a shortage of fitness among senior players adding to the overwhelming pressures on coach Pat Lam.

Just this week captain and hooker Keven Mealamu broke with tradition in criticising a team-mate and citing the poor fitness of fellow All Black Piri Weepu as a factor in the Blues’ poor run of form.

The players have also taken flak for late-night partying and Lam, in turn, has admitted that the coaching staff and the players are not singing from the same hymn sheet.

But wait … there is more. Lam broke down at a media conference this week when he highlighted the pain caused by racist and vitriolic comments aimed at him and his players.

Even Sharks coach John Plumtree came to his support and offered words of advice.

“Forget about the people that throw those types of comment,” said Plumtree. “They are no-hopers, have done nothing with their lives anyway. Hopefully he [Pat Lam] won’t take it personally and I’m sure he will just get on with the job.”

This all suggests that the Blues are ripe for the plucking, but Plumtree knows that the exact opposite is true and that a hurting New Zealand team is a dangerous New Zealand team.

“We are well aware of what we’re walking into. A team that goes through those types of emotions, comes out hungry and they will be tough to beat at Eden Park.”

The Blues have a host of All Blacks spread through their ranks with a strong-running backline, which includes the powerful Ma’a Nonu, Benson Stanley and Rene Ranger.

“We know what a good side they can be and we need to make sure we are better than we were against the Hurricanes,” said Plumtree.

And, of course, the Sharks have problems of their own and they know they cannot simply pitch up on the day and win.

Against the Hurricanes, another desperate New Zealand side at home, they were exposed, both on attack and defence. The return of Pat Lambie at flyhalf will provide them with a timely boost, but they will have to be far more accurate and disciplined at the breakdown, while keeping referee Steve Walsh happy, if they are to stay in the race today.

Mealamu said yesterday the Blues backed their coach and wanted to prove the point by beating the Sharks.

“We’re hurting at the moment and working hard to try to get our team back on track. It hurts that I haven’t been able to lead this team and get the results. I don’t think we have been under this sort of pressure before,” the Blues captain said.

The Sharks, blowing hot and cold, could still end their four-match tour on a successful, satisfying note with a second win on the road following their success over the Brumbies, but it will be bloody and bruising.

Sharks tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis agreed and said the Blues would be far more physical than the Hurricanes.

“I don’t care about their record this year. They have a proud rugby history and they are one of the two best rugby playing teams in New Zealand.

“We know we have our work cut out.

“Like us, they’re fighting for their lives. It’s going to be a tough game and very physical and we’ll need to play ten times better than last week to be in with a shout.”

While history favours the Sharks — they have a remarkable seven successive wins over the Auckland franchise — they have never before faced a more desperate Blues side, one hell-bent on answering their critics, and satisfying their supporters, with a victory at the headquarters of New Zealand rugby.

TEAMS

Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Dale Chadwick.

Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Jandre Marais, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Jacques Botes, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Frederic Michalak.

Blues: 15 Rudi Wulf, 14 Hadleigh Parkes, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Chris Lowrey, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Luke Braid, 5 Liaki Moli, 4 Filo Paulo, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.

Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Peter Saili, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 George Moala.

Referee: Steve Walsh (NZ).

This weekend’s fixtures (home team first)

Today: Blues v Sharks 9.35 am

Force v Waratahs 1.40 pm

Tomorrow: Crusaders v Stormers 9.35 am

Brumbies v Rebels 11.40 am

Cheetahs v Chiefs 5.05 pm

Lions v Bulls 7.10 pm

Byes: Highlanders, Hurricanes, Reds

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