Fri. Nov 18th, 2022

The Blues are bristling at suggestions out of the Highlanders camp theyre a South African pack in Kiwi jerseys, with the insinuation theyre all muscle and no hustle clearly striking a nerve ahead of Sundays Super Rugby Aotearoa matchup at Eden Park.
Both forwards coach Tom Coventry and skipper Patrick Tuipulotu were less than enthusiastic when asked about comments from Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody this week that facing the Blues was similar to going up against a side from the republic.
It’s like preparing for a South African team without the South Africans in the comp, said Dermody earlier this week. They are a massive, massive pack. There’s also a lot of kicking, so I guess our challenge is to match them up front and then not get drawn in to that game. They want to be walking from set piece to set piece, so well try to speed the game up,
The Blues selection on Friday appeared to run against that theory, with Leon MacDonald unleashing rookie 20-year-old lock Sam Darry in a rejigged starting pack to face the Highlanders in their home opener for 2021. The Cantab, who has shifted north to chase opportunities, is a bouncy 2.03 metres, but, at 110kg, more lean than mean, and hardly ramps up the beef factor in the home lineup.
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There has also been a total rotation of the front row (where Coventry has an abundance of riches at his disposal), with All Black props Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tuinukuafe coming in to bookend hooker Luteru Tolai, and the trio of James Lay, Kurt Eklund and Nepo Laulala reassigned to bench duty. Jonathan Ruru also flips starting duty at halfback with Sam Nock, with the backline otherwise unchanged.
Coventry was hardly enthusiastic about the South African comparisons, even if they were probably intended as a compliment.
We are big, said Coventry after the Blues Friday training hitout. But I dont think were as immobile as what was implied. I think we can still run and move around the field as well as anyone. Our trainers take a lot of pride we can move with the best of them.
We are a big pack, I get the implication, but Id like to think were more than just a big heavy pack that does one thing well.
Dave Rowland/Getty Images
Sam Darry will make his Super Rugby debut for the Blues on Sunday in their home opener.
Blues skipper Tuipulotu, one of the more physical forwards in the Kiwi game, was clearly irked by the insinuation that they were somewhat one-dimensional.
I dont think about it too much, he responded. They can call it whatever they want. Rugby is rugby, we know our strengths and they know theirs. What Im looking forward to is a big physical forward pack and that battle up front.
I know our backs are looking forward to scoring some nice tries out wide. For us it starts up front, and thats my worry at the moment.
The reality is the Blue swill fancy themselves having an edge both in the arm-wrestle up front, and in the harum-scarum stuff out wide, for all the danger posed by in-form Highlanders wing Jona Nareki.
And its not as if the southerners dont pose their own threats in the forward confrontations, with their clear enthusiasm for the rolling maul off the short lineout. Hooker Ash Dixon makes a living these days finishing off from the big drives.
Were very aware where they score most of their points, added Coventry. Over half their pts last year came from the lineout. Theres no change. Ash had a great Mitre 10 season with Hawkes Bay being a provider of lots of tries for his tm and fits back into the Highlanders in the boot there.
Weve spoken about it, and trained in that area lot. Its become quite big in Super footy the maul coming back in New Zealand. Teams are getting the craft pretty accurate at the moment, and were very conscious of their strength there.
Marty Melville/Photosport
Mark Telea and the Blues made a high-flying start to Super Rugby Aotearoa in Wellington.
Darrys selection was the only surprise call for MacDonald heading into their home opener. With Josh Goodhue out with a minor hand injury, he could have left the more experienced, and hard-nosed, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti in his second row. But they clearly like what they have seen from the former Christs College standout.
Sam has had a marvellous pre-season, and he’s earned the right on merit to have a crack, said Coventry. Hes a really conscientious young man, does his homework well, and is working hard on and off the field. So it’s just the process now of getting him on the grass so we can develop him even further.
Tuipulotu said the youngster had proven a quick learner since joining his new franchise for pre-season preparations.
Im pretty happy weve got some tall timber in the locking stocks up here, said the All Black second-rower who has taken a lead role in mentoring the rookie. You dont really need to help him along too much he knows what needs to be done. He’s already a professional athlete at such a young age.
The luxury we have with someone like him coming in, is he adds to what we already have here. He’s always willing to put his hand up and question a lot of things, and you dont see that with a lot of young guys. It’s pleasing he’s doing that and he’s already growing a lot.
Coventry was also rapt with Friday’s announcement that Auckland was returning to level 1 Covid restrictions, and that there would be no constraints on fans attending Sunday’s clash.
Its exciting. Weve planned all week that we would be going to get to level 1 today. It’s great for the country and good on Auckland for getting their act together and working hard to make sure we look after the virus. Were rapt.
Tuipulotu said it was important for his team to have their fans in the stands as they looked to build on their first-up 31-16 victory over the Canes in Wellington.
Hopefully well see a full Eden Park, added the Blues skipper. Its understandable if we dont. People are still sketchy, and there’s a lot of danger out there in the unknown. But we’re happy. Its a different atmosphere when we have a crowd at Eden Park and to have it first up is pretty good.
Blues fans have no excuses to stay away. The Highlanders are coming off a massive 39-23 comeback victory over the Chiefs, and have arguably the form player of the competition so far in wing Jona Nareki, fresh off a game-changing hat-trick in Hamilton.
Those big Blues forwards will do well to starve him of as much ball as they can.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Harry Plummer, Caleb Clarke, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru; Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Sam Darry, Patrick Tuipulotu (capt), Ofa Tuungafasi, Luteru Tolai, Karl Tuinukuafe. Reserves: Kurt Eklund, James Lay, Nepo Laulala, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Tom Robinson, Sam Nock, Tanielu Telea, Emoni Narawa.