Preview: Blues v Waratahs

The Blues will be looking to end off their season with back to back victories when they take on the Waratahs at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday.

The Auckland based outfit got the trend going for what was to come last weekend with a 40-15 victory over the Brumbies in which they outscored their opponents by six tries to two.

Matters got worse for the Australian Super Rugby representatives in the game which followed as the Chiefs ran in eight tries to one on route to a 50-5 victory over the Reds in Brisbane before the situation became an absolute calamity as the Rebels conceded 13 tries in an 85-26 defeat against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

Next up for Australia was the Waratahs who were looking to put in an impressive performance in order to get their play-off hopes back on track. This was not to be as the Hurricanes stopped them in their tracks with a 28-17 victory in Sydney last Saturday and finally the Stormers dealt the final blow with a 22-3 victory over the Western Force in Perth on the same day.

The Blues have played some good rugby under the guidance of coach Tana Umaga this season and there will be plenty to be optimistic about regarding the future of the club but there is still one match left to play and they will have the opportunity to leapfrog the Waratahs into sixth position in the Australasian group on Saturday, provided that they win with a bonus point or alternatively they deny the visitors a losing bonus point.

The Waratahs on the other hand head into this clash in contention for a place in the quarter-finals which will take place next weekend.

The Sydney based outfit is currently tied on 39 points with the Brumbies, however the team from Canberra currently hold the better head to head record which means that if the two teams finish with the same amount of points it would be the team from Canberra that will progress to the last eight.

In order for the Waratahs to advance to the next round they will have to beat the Blues on Friday and hope that the Western Force do them a big favour by knocking over the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday.

The teams look to be on an equal footing when it comes to statistics at scrum time with the Blues holding a 94% success rate at the set-piece while the Waratahs are not far off with an efficiency of 93%.

The Blues have a 96% success rate at the ruck compared to that of 95% from the Waratahs which makes for an interesting battle at the breakdown.

The last time the teams met: The Waratahs managed to record a 23-11 victory over the Blues in Sydney. Scrum-half Nick Phipps and substitute Peter Betham managed to cross the whitewash for the Waratahs while fly-half Bernard Foley contributed 13 points from the boot with two conversions and three penalties. The Blues were rewarded for their efforts throughout the 80 minutes with a five pointer from centre Francis Saili and six points from the boot of fly-half Dan Bowden. Blues number eight Jerome Kaino was shown a yellow card late in the game which effectively killed off the visitors challenge.

Players to watch: Blues Flanker Jerome Kaino has contributed to his teams efforts with six tries from 12 appearances this season. Kaino grabbed a double against the Brumbies last weekend and he will be looking to help his team end off their campaign on a winning note with another impressive performance this weekend. Melani Nanai is another one to watch for the home team. The full-back is a real talent with ball in hand. Nanai has manufactured 18 offloads and four tries from ten appearances this season.

As for the Waratahs they will look to outside centre Israel Folau to get them over the gain line and heading towards the try line.  The Wallabies full-back has managed to find the gaps and cross the whitewash on no less than ten occasions in 14 matches this season. Folau has also managed 160 carries to go with his 1139 running metres and 52 defenders beaten this far. In the forwards, flanker Michael Hooper will be tasked with organising the defensive line and making sure that his team force the Blues into making errors. The skipper has made 143 tackles throughout the season and he will be required to make the big hits once again if his team are to emerge on the winning side this weekend.

Team news: Blues head coach Tana Umaga has retained the same starting XV which defeated the Brumbies in Auckland last weekend. Hooker James Parsons will skipper the side and he will be supported by props Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Sam Prattley in the front row.

Loose forward Steven Luatua joins winger Tevita Li as the only players to have started in every game this season, with the inside pairing of Bryn Hall and Ihaia West also set to play in every game, either starting or off the bench.

Meanwhile the Waratahs have made four changes to their starting team for this clash against the Blues. Following an impressive performance last weekend, flanker Jack Dempsey has been selected to start in the number six jersey while Dean Mumm shifts to the second row.  Dave Dennis will pack down at number eight after a brave effort against the Hurricanes last weekend.

Reece Robinson slots into the starting right wing position, in place of Taqele Naiyaravoro who is serving a one-week suspension while Jim Stewart will have the opportunity to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench.

Form: The Blues and the Waratahs have a similar record this season and only four points separates the two teams in the Australasian conference as they prepare to do battle in their final game of the regular season.  The Auckland-based outfit sit on seventh place in the Australasian group with seven wins coupled with one draw and six losses which leaves them with 35 points from 14 games. The Waratahs on the other hand find themselves sitting on sixth place in the Australasian group with 39 points from 14 games which includes a record of eight wins and six defeats.

The Blues come into this clash on the back of a morale boosting 40-15 victory over the Brumbies last weekend while the Waratahs play-off hopes were dealt a massive blow with a 28-17 defeat against the Hurricanes in Sydney last Saturday.

Prediction: The Blues have managed to collect 35 points and yet they find themselves at the bottom of the New Zealand conference which just goes to show how strong the Kiwi teams are in this year’s expanded tournament. The Blues seem to be playing with plenty of confidence at the moment and they should be able to finish the season with a confidence boosting victory.  Blues to beat the Waratahs by 12 points.

Previous results:

2015: Waratahs won 23-11 in Sydney
2014: Blues won 21-13 in Auckland
2013: Waratahs won 30-27 in Sydney
2011: Blues won 26-13 in Auckland
2011: Blues won 31-17 in Auckland
2010: Waratahs won 39-32 in Sydney
2009: Waratahs won 27-22 in Auckland
2008: Waratahs won 37-16 in Sydney

The teams:

Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo/Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt Vaega/George Moala, 23 Lolagi Visinia

Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Matt Carraro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Jim Stewart

Date: Friday, July 15
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)