Waratahs up, Blues down in Super Rugby

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — One team in the midst of a revival and another trapped in a slump will play crucial matches in this weekend's 10th round of Super Rugby.

On Saturday, the New South Wales Waratahs will host last year's finalists the Lions as they try to improve their record of five wins, a draw and a loss and continue a run which has taken them to the top of the Australian conference and third in the overall standings.

The Auckland-based Blues will face the Dunedin-based Highlanders on Friday, looking to improve their 2-5 record which has them last in the New Zealand conference.

The Waratahs won the Super Rugby title for the first time in 2014 and reached the semifinals again the following year. But in 2016 they finished 10th and in 2017 they were 16th out of 18 teams.

The Blues won the Super Rugby title in each of the tournament's first two years, in 1996 and 1997 and were champions again in 2003. But have reached the playoffs only twice in the intervening 14 years.

In the six years since their last semifinals appearance and under the guidance of three head coaches — all former All Blacks — the Blues have finished ninth, 10th (twice), 11th, 12th and 14th.

One of the Blues most obvious short-comings has been in recruitment. It has not, since Carlos Spencer guided it to its third Super Rugby title in 2003, had a flyhalf of world class or a halfback pairing even close to international standard. The history of the Super Rugby tournament shows that those positions are integral to the success of any team.

The Blues backline has been studded with outstanding players over the years but has often been a patchwork, rather than a finished product. The team has a history of wasting talent by using players out of position or in ineffective combinations.

Rieko Ioane of the Blues reacts after losing the match. Photo/Photosport
Rieko Ioane of the Blues reacts after losing the match. Photo/Photosport

Coach Tana Umaga has been just as guilty as his predecessors of failures of selection. While the four other New Zealand teams are strong in the halves — so strong, the Highlanders have been able to rest All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith for Friday's game — the Blues have no players in that area with any reconizable history of success.

Umaga's task is not helped by a heavy injury toll. By one count he has as many as 18 players on his injury list. But most of his frontline backs are available and he has struggled to endow his backline with any consistency.

Injuries have forced Umaga to pick a reasonable backline combination on Friday by moving Stephen Perofeta from flyhalf to fullback, bringing the promising Bryn Gatland back at flyhalf and moving Reiko Ioane from the midfield to his proper place on the left wing.

"All of the clubs have injuries and we are no different," Umaga said. "But it gives opportunities for other players to stand up and bring some real enthusiasm to our team.

"We have improved over the last two weeks and once again we have to step up to antoher level in every facet of our game. Our record against other New Zealand teams is well documented so we want to make our homecoming a special one."

The Waratahs in recent weeks have established themselves as the best team in the Australian conference, wresting that mantle from the Melbourne Rebels who they beat 51-27 when the teams met in Sydney.

While the Rebels have faded, the Waratahs have grown in strength as the season has progressed. They have beefed up their forward pack for Saturday's clash against the physical Lions who lead the South African conference and were finalists in each of the last two years.

"The Lions have been building this side for three or four years. They've been to two finals and they've got a really interesting way they play the game with a good set piece and a lot of adventure," Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said. "It's a big task for us but if you look at our team we're going into the game with a lot of momentum and confidence."

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