Preview: Blues v Stormers
The Blues will look to make 'home' ground advantage count when they take on the Stormers in Albany on Friday.
Sir John Kirwan's troops have won three out of their four matches played at Eden Park this season, but head across the bridge to North Harbour Stadium for this Round 12 encounter.
At the halfway stage of the competition, Friday's game shapes as a season-defining one for both teams.
Trailing the Chiefs by three points and just two points ahead of the Crusaders in the New Zealand Conference, the Blues desperately need to nail this home game away from home to maintain their position in the top six.
The hosts are coming off a 12-11 defeat at the hands of the Reds, but left Brisbane with their heads held high after dominating all facets of play before a Quade Cooper penalty with five minutes remaining snatched victory from the visitors' grasp.
Their defence was once again utterly resolute, and the Blues have now gone 177 minutes without conceding a try. The men from Auckland have only conceded 12 tries thus far, which is one more than the Stormers, making these two teams the best defensive sides in the competition.
The Stormers sit in 10th place on the overall standings but look to be approaching top form after a season wrecked by injuries.
Coming off a bye, they kicked off their tour of Australasia with a hard faught 18-16 win over the Hurricanes in Palmerston North and - just like the Blues - have now won four and lost four (the Blues are ahead thanks to double the amount of bonus points they've collected this season).
The Stormers boast a hugely physical pack and a dangerous rolling maul. The Blues - who have lost their last three matches to the Stormers - will need to nullify that threat if they are to have a chance of winning away from their regular home base.
But with rain forecast in Albany, another tight encounter could be on the cards which should suit the Stormers just fine if last week's performance against the 'Canes is anything to go by. However, the Blues forwards have been arguably the best amongst the New Zealand teams this season so expect both packs to push each other all the way.
In team news, veteram All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu returns to the Blues line-up having started the last three games on the bench and replaces the injured James Parsons.
Kirwan has also tweaked his backline with Francis Saili coming into the midfield and Rene Ranger shuffling across to the wing.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has reshuffled his pack due to the return from injury of Siya Kolisi who covers for unavailable Michael Rhodes. But keep an eye on the bench where Stormers fans will be awaiting the welcome return of Eben Etzebeth.
Super head to head: Culum Retallick v Andries Bekker. Starting all but one of their eight games this season, Retallick has been nothing short of a revelation at the Blues this season. It’s not just his individual work that has been impressive, but he’s also played a key role in the success of the line-outs. He'll face his biggest test yet though against man-mountain Andries Bekker who overshadowed the Hurricanes' tall timber last week and is a vital cog in the Stormers' tight five engine room..
Prediction: Playing at the less familiar North Harbour Stadium statistically goes against the hosts chances whilst a recent outbreak of flu in the Blues squad in the past week may level the playing fields even further. Stormers by three!
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Francis Saili, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Lolagi Visinia.
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (c), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Gary van Aswegen, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 De Kock Steenkamp, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Pat Cilliers, 18 Eben Etzebeth, 19 Nizaam Carr, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Elton Jantjies, 22 Damian de Allende.
Date: Friday, May 3
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT)
Venue: North Harbour Stadium, Albany
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)