All Blacks may miss Blues Super Rugby opener
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: With the likes of Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina and Rieko Ioane set to miss the Blues Super Rugby opener head coach Tana Umaga is keen to discuss the early-season with All Blacks coaches.
In less than three weeks, the Blues will open their season campaign against the Rebels in Melbourne on February 23 - and top All Blacks such as Kaino, the Blues' co-captain, and Faumuina having only just returned to training - a start for either player at AAMI Park appears unlikely.
While, 19-year-old Ioane, an outside back who played two tests on November's Northern tour, will also be carefully managed back to the playing field as the All Blacks look ahead to a significant year and the arrival of the British and Irish Lions in June.
Kaino and Faumuina are integral entities in All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen's set-up this year and they will require careful managing as Umaga seeks to avoid emulating last year's season.
While injuries to co-captain James Parsons and Sonny Bill Williams and the absence due to undisclosed personal reasons of lock Patrick Tuipulotu also adds woes to Blues season.
Hooker Parsons has still to recover from a concussion which wrecked his season with North Harbour last year, and midfielder Williams, a high-profile signing from the Chiefs, still recuperating from a ruptured Achilles suffered from the New Zealand sevens team at the Rio Olympics in August.
Anything less than four competition points against the Rebels, traditionally one of Super Rugby's weaker teams, would be deeply disappointing, yet while Umaga will be tempted to keep his big guns fresh for the New Zealand derby match against the Chiefs in Hamilton in round two, the Blues' problematic travelling record over the past few years means little can be taken for granted.
"It really depends on," Umaga answered to the NZ Herald regarding the availability of Kaino and his All Black teammates. "This is their first week with us and they've only just started a little bit of isolated contact. It's really how they take to that. I think it's a bit of a shock to the system when they start tackling each other. And especially the group he [Kaino] is in, they're not small guys,"
Parsons' return is even more uncertain given his concussion suffered in September which caused headaches and fatigue.
"He's better," said Umaga, who was reluctant to put a time frame on Parsons' return. "He's out on the training field which is an improvement, it's a step closer to where he needs to get to.
"If we start trying to put demands and dates on things that put pressure on him. I don't think that's healthy for him. It will happen when it happens,"
Williams continues to make progress on his Achilles problem and is slated for a March or April return, while as far as All Blacks lock Tuipulotu is concerned, Umaga said he can only offer him support.
The absence of most of Umaga's senior players means former Crusaders lock Jimmy Tupou will captain the Blues for Saturday's pre-season match against the defending champion Hurricanes at the Blues' Alexandra Park training base.
That fixture has taken precedence of the inaugural Global Tens tournament in Brisbane the following weekend, with forwards coach Steve Jackson, who will oversee the Tens team, saying his squad would have only one training run before the tournament.
"Those guys that aren't really familiar with the Tens will get a taste for it next Wednesday, we'll have one hit-out before we leave," Jackson said.