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Preview: Blues v Lions

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Sportal.co.nz     10 May 2012     Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Eden Park, Auckland, Friday May 11 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 16; Blues 12, Transvaal / Gauteng / Cats / Lions 4.

LAST TIME: March 4, 2011 (Johannesburg) - Lions 32-41 Blues.

WALKING WOUNDED: Early in the week it was announced that Tony Woodcock was over his calf injury and would play, while Keven Mealamu would spend another week on the sidelines with a similar injury. That statement was half right - Mealamu will miss this match but Woodcock won't be there either. Rudi Wulf (shoulder) remains in the stands, while Chris Lowrey (concussion) was ruled out early in the week. Rene Ranger is another who will be missing after suffering injury last week. Alwyn Hollenbach has been ruled out of the remainder of the Lions tour with a knee injury, which means Jaco Taute moves to inside centre and Lionel Mapoe to 13, but otherwise the Lions personnel remain unchanged from a week ago.

FORM:
Blues:
Round 7: lost to Rebels 23-34 (a)
Round 8: lost to Sharks 23-29 (h)
Round 9: lost to Highlanders 27-30 (a)
Round 10: lost to Reds 11-23 (h)
Round 11: lost to Hurricanes 19-35 (a)

Lions:
Round 7: lost to Cheetahs 5-26 (a)
Round 8: lost to Bulls 18-32 (h)
Round 9: bye
Round 10: lost to Brumbies 20-34 (h)
Round 11: lost to Chiefs 21-34 (a)

If the Blues have one advantage in the form line this week, it is that they have won more recently (round three) than the Lions (round one). Apart from that, the season has been terrible with the team underperforming on a weekly basis and, against the Hurricanes, going into second-half meltdown after a solid first 40. So far the Blues have been unable to reverse a halftime deficit, which is a bad thing when they have trailed nine times in ten games. Already condemned to playing out the string, one suspects the Blues cannot wait for this year to be over.

The Lions never had much talent on the roster and a long injury list has only made matters worse as the team drifts towards a predictable double-figure finish, which follows ten other equally barren years. Simply unable to foot it with better teams - and there are a lot of them - the Lions have not got within ten points of an opponent in the last five matches. They did play with commendable energy against the Chiefs and scored three tries, all from close-quarter rumbles, against what had previously been the toughest defence in the competition but it was hard to shake the feeling that the Chiefs were not paying as much attention as they might have been.

WHO'S HOT: Trying to find nice things to say about the Blues on a weekly basis is something of a chore, although the front row is generally exempt from the worst criticism. Tony Woodcock and Charlie Faumuina are among the more impressive propping pairs going round in the competition and the scrum has always been reliable; in Woodcock's absence Tevita Mailau has carried on the good work. Luke Braid continues to battle hard in every match and gets through a power of work, although the young skipper would no doubt like to make a winning speech some time soon.

The Lions pack also came through with the goods last week, putting the Chiefs under considerable pressure with their driving mauls. Joshua Strauss had an outstanding match, playing himself to a standstill, while Cobus Grobbelaar also made a significant contribution. Both young second rowers impressed, with Grant Hattingh in particular standing out for some vigorous work on either side of the ball. Like the Blues, the Lions worst problems are behind the scrum and the backline did not threaten against a tough Chiefs midfield.

WE THINK: The Lions won't be crying to hear that Auckland's weather is supposed to clear by Friday, since they'll want to play the same sort of game as they displayed against the Chiefs. If they can get that forward platform again, they have to be a good chance against a Blues team that everyone thinks has to come right sooner or later but so far has not done so. It may be tipping against the norm, but a narrow Lions win is by no means impossible at Eden Park.

TEAMS:

Blues: 1. Tevita Mailau, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Charlie Faumuina, 4. Liaki Moli, 5. Ali Williams, 6. Luke Braid (capt), 7. Daniel Braid, 8. Peter Saili, 9. Piri Weepu, 10. Gareth Anscombe, 11. Benson Stanley, 12. Michael Hobbs, 13. Ma'a Nonu, 14. David Raikuna, 15. Hadleigh Parkes.

Replacements: 16. James Parsons, 17. Angus Ta'avao, 18. Filo Paulo, 19. Steven Luatua, 20. Alby Mathewson, 21. Lachie Munro, 22. Sherwin Stowers.


Lions: 1. JC Janse van Rensburg, 2. Callie Visagie, 3. Pat Cilliers, 4. Franco van der Merwe, 5. Ruan Botha, 6. Derick Minnie, 7. Grant Hattingh, 8. Joshua Strauss (capt), 9. Ross Cronje, 10. Elton Jantjies, 11. Michael Killian, 12. Jaco Taute, 13. Lionel Mapoe, 14. Deon van Rensburg, 15. Andries Coetzee.

Replacements: 16. Martin Bezuidenhout, 17. CJ van der Linde, 18. Cobus Grobbelaar, 19. Jaco Kriel, 20. Tian Meyer, 21. Ruan Combrink, 22. James Kamana.


REFEREE: Angus Gardner (Australia)