Three for the price of one: Is this the playmaker combination that can get the Blues back on track?
The Blues created only one clear chance in their defeat to the Crusaders – and scored from it through skipper and lock Patrick Tuipulotu. Now, in a major reshuffle of his backline, Leon MacDonald has named three playmakers in a bid to unlock the Bulls’ defence in Pretoria.
Otere Black returns from a rib injury suffered in pre-season to start at No 10 on Sunday morning, with Harry Plummer replacing TJ Faiane at second-five and regular first-five Stephen Perofeta starting at fullback.
Lock Jacob Pierce earns his first start of the season in place of Josh Goodhue, who injured an ankle against the Crusaders, and there is a re-shuffle among the loose forwards, with Tony Lamborn back at openside flanker and Tom Robinson at No 6, with in-form Hoskins Sotutu staying at No 8.
The Blues’ inability to breach an admittedly excellent Crusaders’ defensive line in the second half of their match at Eden Park last weekend has prompted MacDonald’s triple playmaker gamble. It’s clear too that his side will want to play a fast game against a Bulls team yet to win this season without neglecting a kicking strategy on the highveld.
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“We’ve picked a team that allows us to find the space we’re looking for, I suppose,” MacDonald said. “The playmakers we’ve got, their skillsets – obviously we want to play a smart game at altitude so there’s going to be some kicking I’m picking. But also we need good communicators with the skills to get the ball where we need it.
“Otere has been training really well after his injury and we feel he deserves the opportunity.”
Fullback is not an unfamiliar position for Perofeta, who is also likely to play a big role there when Beauden Barrett finally steps on to the field in a Blues jersey in mid-April.
“Stevie is probably one of our form players, especially with ball in hand,” MacDonald said.
“He’s been pretty electric. He played a bit there in pre-season last year before he picked up a season-ending injury so we know he’s really capable. He’s an allrounder.
“Harry has played a lot at No 12, especially in the age groups. More recently he’s been at No 10. He’s a big strong guy. I think he suits No 12. He’s quite physical with the way he carries and tackles. We have to manage our team well. TJ has already clocked up a lot of minutes.”
MacDonald’s playmaker strategy appears a horses for courses approach, but he added:
“This is Harry’s opportunity and if he grabs it, it could be a long-term thing.”
MacDonald confirmed Black, the most accurate of the Blues’ goalkickers, would get the kicking duties.
For the playmakers to have any impact the forwards need to improve their set-piece performance significantly, something skipper Tuipulotu was confident they had done. Last weekend the Crusaders picked off their lineout almost at will and while the Bulls have yet to score a try in their two matches this season, they have a huge and powerful pack.
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“We’ve come up with a new plan that’s exciting for us,” Tuipulotu said. “We’ve had a hoodoo put on us in terms of our lineouts over the last couple of weeks. It’s not good enough to win Super Rugby games. We’ve been putting in the work.
“They’ve got the height on us but we back our ability and game to get around the park.”
MacDonald added: “Our basics of the game weren’t good enough last week and we’ve talked about that. We’ve talked about our decision making and skill execution.”
Blues: 15. Stephen Perofeta, 14. Emoni Narawa, 13. Joe Marchant, 12. Harry Plummer, 11. Mark Telea, 10. Otere Black, 9. Jonathan Ruru, 8. Hoskins Sotutu, 7. Tony Lamborn, 6. Tom Robinson, 5. Jacob Pierce, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3. Sione Mafileo, 2. James Parsons, 1. Karl Tu’inukuafe.
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