Blues driven for success

The Blues have a fair idea what's coming. It's just whether they can do anything about it that they're a little unsure of.

Tana Umaga's men meet their first South African opponents of the Super Rugby season in Albany on Saturday night when they host the Bulls.

At 1-3, with just six competition points in the red-hot New Zealand conference, it's a matchup the under-achieving Auckland outfits are desperate to win.

After starting with a big victory in Melbourne, the Blues have now dropped three straight, to the Chiefs (41-26), Highlanders (16-12) and Crusaders (33-24) to ease back near the foot of the Kiwi group.

They understand the importance of getting things back on track sooner rather than later.

But to start the turnaround on Saturday they're going to have to neutralise the well-documented strengths of a Bulls outfit that would have been licking their lips at the sight of the Crusaders pack rumbling over for two lineout-drive tries against the Blues last weekend.  

Rolling mauls just happen to be the speciality of the visitors, along with set pieces and an astute kicking game.

Umaga said they had to expect to face further examinations around the drive.

"Last week we learnt a bit there, and it's been a constant on our minds since," he said after naming a starting XV featuring just one change (Charlie Faumuina) from that which blew a 24-5 second-half lead over the Crusaders. "They've seen the blueprint of how teams have scored against us, and it's about us being on the same page in nullifying that. We know it's coming, and we're working hard to take the sting out of those areas."

Of course, the best way to nullify the attack is not to give away those midfield penalties that allow teams to kick for the corners and launch those raids.

Adds Umaga: "We might as well just go line up there [on the 5m mark] because if we give away penalties we know where they're going, and we know what's coming. We need to be better at doing what we can control and performing what we train."

Long story short: the Blues need to be disciplined. And they need to play their footy in the right parts of the field against a Bulls side who themselves have started a little shakily, dropping road games to the Stormers and Cheetahs before taking care of the struggling Sunwolves at home.

"They've got some dynamic runners and are very physical as successful Bulls teams of the past have been," noted Umaga. "And with (Handre) Pollard they've got a good kicking 10, as well as some X-factor in their side. We've got to be very aware it's not just a case of turning up and it's going to happen for us.

"Both teams are in the same boat, looking for success. They're probably seeing this game as one they think they can win, and we've got to do the same."

The first 50 minutes or so at the Crusaders showed what the Blues can do when they play their game of pace, ball in hand and putting their powerful backs into holes. The last half-hour demonstrated just as palpably their helplessness when they fail to win the requisite possession.

"It understands when to have structure and when to open it up," added Umaga. "The freelance stuff comes off the structure, and the structure builds that and breaks teams down. That decision-making process is what differentiates the good from the other sides, and we're trying to develop that."

Given they'd actually take the eighth, and last, playoff spot if the finals started tomorrow, the Blues are not panicking over another slow start. But they get the urgency of their situation.

"We took a lot of confidence out of last week, especially that first 60 minutes," said skipper James Parsons. "We found a brand of rugby we thrive off and like to play, and we've just got to buy into that. There are a lot of positive signs and we're confident.

"It's just those decisions under pressure. It's not that we don't have the skills, but we've got to execute under pressure."

The Blues have won 10 of their 11 home games against the Bulls, with their lone defeat in 2013. The South Africans have also lost nine of their last 10 in New Zealand. Albany's QBE Stadium is not exactly a fortress for the Aucklanders, though, with just two wins in their last six appearances there.

One more on Saturday night is imperative.    

Blues: Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Piers Francis,  Augustine Pulu; Jerome Kaino, Blake Gibson, Jimmy Tupou, Patrick Tuipulotu, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons (c), Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Matt Moulds, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Sione Mafileo, Akira Ioane, Murphy Taramai, Billy Guyton, Ihaia West, TJ Faiane.

Bulls: Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jesse Kriel, Jan Serfontein, Jamba Ulengo,  Handré Pollard, Piet van Zyl; Hanro Liebenberg, Nick de Jager, Ruan Steenkamp, Lood de Jager, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss (c), Lizo Gqoboko. Reserves: Jaco Visagie, Pierre Schoeman, RG Snyman,  Jannes Kirsten,  Rudy Paige, Tian Schoeman, Burger Odendaal, John-Roy Jenkinson.


Photo: ANDREW CORNAGA/PHOTOSPORT (Tana Umaga says his Blues have to be disciplined and deny the Bulls the chance to launch their lineout drives).