Rugby-Brumbies face test of title ambitions against Blues


  • Rugby
  • Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The ACT Brumbies' title credentials will be put to the test when they travel to Eden Park to face the Auckland Blues in Super Rugby Pacific on Saturday.

Stephen Larkham's Brumbies are riding a five-match winning streak since being thrashed 46-12 by the Waikato Chiefs in round two but have avoided New Zealand's best sides during that run.

That comes to an end against the second-placed Blues, who return from a bye week after smashing Western Force 50-3 for their fourth successive win.

With the Blues and Brumbies level on 27 points and a top two berth on the line, the result could have a big impact on the run to the playoffs.

The Brumbies, who are also coming off a bye, have long set the benchmark for Australia's five teams while ultimately falling short against New Zealand's best, bowing out of the semi-finals in the last two seasons.

The Canberra-based side's form in New Zealand has proved the biggest obstacle, and their last four trips to Eden Park have ended in defeat.

"Traditionally it's probably our hardest game of the season," Larkham told reporters on Thursday.

"They've been playing some amazing footy. So this will be our biggest challenge so far."

The Blues will lack their first-choice halves duo, with All Blacks Finlay Christie and Stephen Perofeta sidelined by injuries, but welcome back their captain, lock Patrick Tuipulotu, from concussion.

The Blues have long been known for their potency in attack but it is their defence this season which has marked them out as major contenders.

The Brumbies must find a way through a team who have conceded less than 14 points on average in their seven matches, while staying alive to the counter-attacking threats of Rieko Ioane, Mark Tele'a and Caleb Clarke.

A big, bonus-point win for either side could even mean nabbing top spot should the high-flying Wellington Hurricanes slip up against Fijian Drua in Suva on Friday.

The seventh-placed Drua have disappointed this season and slumped to a fourth loss in an ill-disciplined match away to the Melbourne Rebels last week.

But Mick Byrne's side are a different proposition in Fijian heat and humidity, winning all three home matches this term.

They upset the Hurricanes 27-24 in Suva last year on the way to a first appearance in the playoffs and back themselves to repeat the trick.

With the Rebels and Chiefs on a bye, the Queensland Reds will hope to bridge the gap to the top four on Friday with a home win against the Otago Highlanders, a match-up of two sides dreadfully out of form.

The 10th-placed Highlanders (2-5) have lost their last four matches but the Reds have dropped their last three and now lack scrumhalf and captain Tate McDermott and fellow Wallaby Fraser McReight due to suspensions.

The final match of the round will be another battle of strugglers, with the Canterbury Crusaders looking to give their imperilled title defence a boost against the Western Force in Perth.

The bottom-two clash will feature Kurtley Beale's return to professional rugby for the first time since 2022, with the 35-year-old former Wallaby set to start at fullback for Force.

Beale was picked up by the Force on a short-term deal after being cleared of sexual assault in February, allegations he denied.

"I'm hoping the body responds well," said Beale.

"Age is just a number. I still feel like I've got a lot to add to the game."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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