Talented All Black utility back Isaia Toeava has copped some fairly direct criticism from his coach to go with demotion from the starting lineup for Saturday night’s must-win Super 14 visit to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Marc Hinton of RugbyHeaven NZ writes that it was a rare display of a coach being prepared to publicly bag a player for a performance, David Nucifora has not held back in explaining the one definite change he’s made to his starting lineup in the wake of last week’s well-timed 35-22 victory over the Reds in Brisbane.
Nucifora has restored rookie Benson Stanley to the second five-eighths role, alongside the in-form Anthony Tuitavake in midfield, and demoted Toeava to backup duties.
Two key forwards, skipper and lock Troy Flavell (hamstring) and Tony Woodcock (foot), have also been bracketed and will have to prove their fitness on the match’s eve in Dunedin.
Nucifora has also persisted with his much-criticised preference for Isa Nacewa at first five and Nick Evans at fullback, a move the pundits say has not worked but which the Blues coach continues to vigorously defend.
But it’s Toeava’s latest demotion that will surprise most in an otherwise predictable lineup as the Blues chase another bonus point victory to keep their outside playoff hopes alive. They must take 10 points over the closing two rounds, and then pray other results fall their way to sneak into the back door of the post-season.
Many believe the pairing of Toeava and Tuitavake is the Blues’ strongest in midfield, and certainly with the five points achieved in Brisbane (albeit with little to spare) it could have been expected they would get another chance to build on their partnership.
Instead Nucifora has delivered a surprisingly forthright and critical appraisal of Toeava’s performance against the Reds. The demotion might also be a blow to the youngster’s chances of retaining a spot in the All Blacks squad to be announced at the end of the competition.
“Benson has performed consistently well all year,” said Nucifora, before getting to what he saw as the crux of the matter.
“I felt with Ice’s performance last week, he probably didn’t take the opportunities as well as I would have liked to have seen him.
“This is probably a better centre combination for this game.”
Nucifora said it was no coincidence that the Blues had recovered their attacking spark over the last fortnight (starting with an unlucky 22-26 defeat to the Crusaders, followed by the Brisbane victory). That had coincided with the positional switch of Nacewa and Evans, he reckoned.
“People have questioned us about our use of Evans and Nacewa but since we’ve made that change we’ve started to score some more tries. There’s something in that for us and that’s why we’ve stuck to it this week.”
Once again Nucifora was also talking down the mentality of having to play an up-tempo game against the Highlanders to secure the bonus point for tries. Last week the Blues went right until the 79th minute to bag their fourth touchdown and secure the all-important extra point.
“We’ve got a game-plan in place and if we do it well enough the four tries will be an outcome. People said last week that we had to think about them, and we got them. We’ve got our own way of going through the process of getting them. If we play well enough it will happen.”
One thing Nucifora was anticipating — on top of a cool evening in the southern city — was a mighty forward battle. The Blues scrum has been their standout feature this year and the Highlanders have shown themselves to have not just a useful pack, but an above-average lineout.
“They have got a very good lineout and I’m sure they’re going to be playing the game and putting a lot of pressure on us in that department. It’s something we’re putting quite a bit of work into.
“In saying that our scrum has performed very well all year, and we do believe we can put some pressure on them in that part of the set-piece battle.”
The key to the Blues’ prowess at scrum time — vital under the new laws with the defensive line a further 5m back — had been the unity of all eight forwards, reckoned Nucifora.
“The front row is important but we’ve been scrummaging very well as a unit and it’s been a real weapon for us this year. Hoepfully that can continue.”
The Blues’ record in Dunedin is not exactly promising. They’ve won only two of six matches down there and have grabbed the bonus point for four tries just the once.
“I heard that statistic was floating around out there,” said Nucifora, with only the hint of a grin. “It doesn’t play into our thinking at all to be honest. It’s different teams, different coaches. We’ve taken their coach and taken their No 10 so maybe that will make the difference.”
The match kicks off at 7.35pm on Saturday night (NZ time). The Blues will have one key advantage, with the Highlanders having made the long trip back from Africa — a scenario that doesn’t often see them produce their best rugby in the round following.
BLUES: 15 Nick Evans, 14 David Smith, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Isa Nacewa, 9 Taniela Moa; 8 Nick Williams, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Troy Flavell (c)/Kurtis Haiu, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock/Nick White.
Reserves: 16 White/Tom McCartney, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Haiu/Bryn Evans, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Danny Lee, 21 Isaia Toeava, 22 Ben Atiga.