Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 23 News List

Hurt Blues may be blown away by the Hurricanes

WELLINGTON , NEW ZEALAND AND HONG KONG

Injuries could hamper the defending champion Auckland Blues as they attempt to turn around their Super 12 rugby season in a sixth-round match with the Wellington Hurricanes today.

The Blues have only one win from four matches in a bleak 2004 season and will be without All Blacks Ali Williams, Joe Rokocoko and Carlos Spencer as they approach the season's midpoint.

Balancing those losses are the returns from injury Friday of captain Xavier Rush and All Black flanker Daniel Braid, which restores the Aucklanders' first-choice loose forward combination. All Blacks tighthead prop Kees Meeuws has also recovered from a back injury and will stiffen the Blues' front row.

The Waikato Chiefs meet the New South Wales Waratahs, the Canterbury Crusaders play the Otago Highlanders, the Stormers meet the Bulls at Cape Town and the table-topping ACT Brumbies meet the Queensland Reds on Sunday at Canberra.

The Blues haven't lost to the Hurricanes in the nine years of the Super 12 and scored 60 points on their last visit to Wellington two years ago.

They meet a Hurricanes team struggling for form after a one-point loss last week to South Africa's Sharks, winners only twice in five-matches and without their captain Tana Umaga.

"This game is a must win for us -- and for them," Rush said.

"It's a game we have to front up for but the Hurricanes have shown in fits and starts that they, when they're on their game, can be a very good side."

All Blacks No. 8 Rodney So'oialo returns from a foot injury to strengthen the Hurricanes, moving stand-in captain Jerry Collins to the blindside flank. Luke Andrews replaces Ross Kennedy at lock as Wellington look for forward mobility.

"We've never beaten them and they don't like losing to Wellington," So'oialo said. "Their record is pretty good against us. We want to change that this week."

An individual battle between fullbacks Joe Roff for ACT and Chris Latham for Queensland has gained importance with news that Wallaby star Mat Rogers is out of action for up to five months with an ankle injury.

Brumbies coach David Nucifora has tried to claim underdog status for his team, saying its tiring return from South Africa placed it at a disadvantage.

"I can't see how we could possibly have the advantage," said Reds coach Jeff Miller. "They're leading the table, they're close to the top try-scorers, they have attacking weapons all over the field."

The Crusaders, four-time champions and finalists last year, started slowly but bolstered their campaign last week with a win over the Chiefs.

Saturday's opponents, the Highlanders, also steadied their season with a win over the bottom-placed Cats though it was a win filled with flaws. The Highlanders remain the best-placed New Zealand team in the Super 12, fifth with two wins and a draw from five games.

The Crusaders start favorites. Tony Koonwaiyou is the only Canterbury starting back not to have played for New Zealand while the forward pack, despite a crisis at hooker, is full of internationals.

HONG KONG SEVENS

Defending champion England begins its campaign for a third straight Hong Kong Rugby Sevens title Friday without powerful center Henry Paul, who was forced to withdraw after becoming involved in a club-or-country row.

English Premiership side Gloucester refused to release Paul to compete at the Hong Kong event, saying it wanted him to play in a crucial play off match against Sale on Friday. Despite threats from England's Rugby Football Union to ban Paul for 10 days of club action, Gloucester refused to back down.

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