After five long weeks, Blues No 8 Akira Ioane is finally set to start for his improving team – he’ll run on for the first whistle against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday for a side that may require a little extra energy after a delayed return from South Africa.
After the Blues backed up their last-second victory over the Bulls in Pretoria with a hugely meritorious 33-14 victory over the previously unbeaten Stormers in Cape Town, a delay left them stuck at Johannesburg airport for five extra hours, making an already long journey home even more arduous.
“It was a tough trip back,” said assistant coach Tom Coventry. “We were delayed by four or five hours and sat around the lounge in Johannesburg hoovering down the food that was offered to us. I think the catering staff were pretty keen to see us on the plane eventually.”
Fortunately, men such as Ioane and the returning lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti – on the reserves bench for what will be his first game of the year after injury – are ready to provide some much-needed reinforcements at a place where the Blues haven’t enjoyed much success recently.
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Ioane played in every game over the last two seasons but has played only 12 minutes off the bench this year. His failure to make the travelling squad to South Africa was a big surprise but such has been the form of Hoskins Sotutu – a real find for the Blues – the opportunities just haven’t been there for a man in the All Black frame last year.
“We’ve spoken about using our squad possibly a little bit better than we did last season,” Coventry said. “Aki comes into the mix this week. Blake [Gibson] gets an opportunity to start – he didn’t have much time away with us. Those guys will add some value, as well as Gerard, who will come off the bench.”
Dalton Papalii’s All Black rest week gives Gibson his big chance, and for Ioane is probably a case of if not now, then when.
“We need to make sure we give guys opportunities to play and create some competition in our group, which has been evidenced so far. Aki has been working really hard – he had some clear messages about what he had to do while we were away and he gets his opportunity this week.
“Akira is a really popular member of our team and we want him to do well. The trainers have been working him pretty hard. It’s exciting to have him back in there – considering he played every game last year and was a big part of 2019, it’s going to be good to have him back on the field.
“I’d like to see him active with the ball in his hands. We want him running into space and getting the ball off the back of the scrum nicely, making his tackles and showing progress he’s made in some of the dark areas he’s been criticised about before. He showed in pre-season he’s been good in those areas. I think we’d all like to see him rampaging around with the ball in his hand and being an obvious threat.”
The Blues’ backline remains unchanged which means Akira’s brother Rieko retains his No 13 jersey and will have his hands full trying to defend Ngani Laumape in the Hurricanes’ midfield.
Meanwhile, Beauden Barrett will train fully with the Blues from Monday as he works his way into his first Super Rugby game of the season; slated for the Blues v Hurricanes fixture at Eden Park on April 11.
Coventry confirmed the All Blacks playmaker would turn out for Taranaki club Coastal, coached by brother Kane, the week before.
“He [Kane] has already made it clear he isn’t going to take too much rubbish from his brother,” Coventry said. “I think he warned him he’d be carrying the water bottles if he didn’t play so well.
“It’s great if we can get Super Rugby players and All Blacks starting their return to play [protocols] through the clubs. It’s outstanding.”
WATCH: Hurricanes coach Jason Holland answered questions from RugbyPass fans on Sky Sport NZ’s The Breakdown.
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