The big, bad Blues still need speed where it matters, and theyre breathing a sigh of relief that Blake Gibson has recovered from a rib injury in time to face the Crusaders at Eden Park on Sunday.
With All Black Dalton Papalii out this week after taking a knock to his noggin against the Highlanders last Sunday, and new signing Dillon Hunt potentially out for the season with ongoing concussion issues, the Blues have been forced to dig deep in their openside flanker stock.
They have added well-performed Auckland No 7 Adrian Choat to their squad as a replacement (for Hunt), but forwards coach Tom Coventry confirmed to Stuff that Gibson had made a full recovery from his rib problems and would be available to face the Crusaders on Sunday, if required.
The Blues will name their squad on Friday, but will almost certainly start with Gibson at No 7, alongside the line-busting duo of Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu, with Tom Robinson likely to provide loose forward cover off the bench.
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That balance is important, as is the experience of Gibson, and there will be relief around the Blues that they are able to replace the well-performed Papalii with someone as capable, physical and athletic as Gibson.
Dalton failed his HIA at the weekend. He took a knock to his nose and head, and weve given him this week off, Coventry confirmed. We had Blake in the wings. He was available for selection last week, but we were planning on giving Dalton a rest anyway, as he was a bit banged up the week before. Blake comes in there, and hes a good boy.
Coventry confirmed Hunt, who had joined the franchise from the Highlanders, could potentially miss the entire season as he worked through ongoing head issues.
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Dalton Papalii has played well so far for the Blues, but picked up a head knock against the Highlanders
Dillon has been given a reprieve around trying to get himself available for selection which can cause a bit of anxiety for guys with head injuries. Hes been given time go away and seek medical advice. Hes working with specialists and its taken the pressure off him to be back by a certain date, said Coventry.
Hes the sort of boy who feels like hes letting the team down, so weve tried to assure him getting himself healthy again is what were after everyone has his best interests at heart.
But Coventry confirmed Hunts situation was serious enough that we may not have him this year.
They will have their fourth All Black prop, Alex Hodgman, available for selection this week after he came through Tuesdays training well, though Coventry said they had been delighted with the work done by James Lay in his stead through the first two matches.
A lot has been made of the Blues size and power up front and Highlanders coach Tony Brown said after his teams 39-17 defeat at Eden Park that Sundays matchup between the two undefeated sides of Super Rugby Aotearoa would essentially come down to a clash of styles.
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A fit-again Blake Gibson is likely to get a shot at No 7 for the Blues against the Crusaders.
If the Blues can use their power, be really good at the set piece, they can slow the Crusaders down, said Brown when asked to assess prospects. But the Crusaders play fast as well. Its whether they can handle the speed of the Crusaders, or slow the game down.
Coventry wasnt so sure about that generalisation, pointing out the Blues showed last Sunday they could run and gun when they wanted to.
I think you need to (play both styles) if you are going be any good, he added. Weve learnt and tactically weve evolved as a team. Our on-field leadership has got better, and some of our tactical decision-making is much better than it was a couple of years ago. Thats a credit to Pat [Tuipulotu] and the boys helping him on-field, and what you see now is the ability to play more than one style of rugby.
Weve got four All Black props, so the obvious is were pretty strong up front. But just winning scrum ball after scrum ball isnt necessarily going to get you the result Youve got to be able to do more than one thing well. The game is evolving too quickly, and coaches are clever enough to manipulate you if youre not.
No one is better at that manipulation game than the Crusaders. Thats why the Blues will be rapt to have Gibson there to slot in as a specialist openside. Swiftness of thought and action is going to be imperative at Eden Park on Sunday.