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Luke Braid

LEADING THE WAY: Luke Braid says he still has a lot to achieve in New Zealand rugby

Captain Luke Braid headlines a quartet of Blues players who have recommitted to the franchise for the next Super Rugby season.

Braid, fellow flanker Brendon O’Connor and wing Frank Halai have all signed one-year deals with the Blues while halfback Bryn Hall has re-signed until the end of 2016.

The 25-year-old Braid was a consistently high performer this season, despite carrying a shoulder injury for most of the year, and still has high ambitions in New Zealand. “I’m still incredibly motivated to win something with the Blues and continue to try and make the All Blacks,” Braid said.

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New Zealand Conference
For those who might have watched the episode of Boots & All on Thursday 17 July, you might have heard John Mitchell refer to an article he read surrounding the New Zealand teams and conference.

Rugby-Talk exclusively brings you the article in question, and we must agree with John, it does make for some interesting reading.

Just how level are the current playing fields in Super Rugby, if all sides don’t face the same opposition, and what are the possible consequences thereof on the final standings?

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It's almost like the Blues' failure has been brushed aside because it's expected. Photo / APN

It’s almost like the Blues’ failure has been brushed aside because it’s expected. Photo / APN

The Blues are consistent – 10th last year and again this season.

That’s the upshot of winning 13 games and losing 19 in the two seasons John Kirwan has been in charge of a franchise which has flowered intermittently since their last 2003 title success.

It’s almost like the Blues’ failure has been brushed aside because it’s expected, that’s what they do, they are stuck in a cycle of under-achievement.

As most of the New Zealand focus turns to the work of the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs in the playoffs, the Blues will go through their season debriefs and make plans for next year before delivering another version of onwards and upwards rhetoric.

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Special EditionSuper RugbyLike every fine season of Super Rugby, all is not revealed until the final weekend of the regular season, and the 2014 campaign, and 19th tournament overall of the Southern Hemisphere’s premier provincial competition, will be no different.

However congratulations must be offered to the Waratahs, who offered one piece of clarity over the weekend with their 44-16 win over the Highlanders.

With that, the Waratahs has for the first time qualified as the top-ranked team after the regular season, and become the ninth franchise in history to finish as ‘minor premiers’.

For coach Michael Cheika and his troops, this will be a significant fact even though he was quick to remind all who would listen that the Super Rugby Finals Series would be another step up for a team that looks the goods.

However, as Cheika correctly pointed out, there will be teams with more experience at this stage of the season and this is a crucial factor for potential champions.

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Tony Woodcock

Tony Woodcock

Luke Braid

Luke Braid

The Blues will be without veteran All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock and captain Luke Braid for their crunch Super Rugby match against the Chiefs at Eden Park on Friday.

Woodcock suffered a shoulder injury during last week’s loss to the Crusaders and with a six day turnaround coach John Kirwan felt he would not be fully fit and it was not worth risking him.

“Woody’s had a great season for us so it’s a big loss. He’s been quite outstanding really and one of our best players since he’s been back,” Kirwan said.

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Piri Weepu

Piri Weepu leading the Haka

London Welsh are today expected to announce the signing of Piri Weepu from the Auckland Blues, according to reliable sources.

It marks another huge signing in their already impressive recruitment drive, with the 71-cap All Black set to bring real experience of rugby at the very top level. He will join the likes of Olly Barkley and Tim Molenaar in what is starting to look like a very useful back line.

Weepu’s career is yet to take him outside of New Zealand, beginning his career in Wellington both for the ITM Cup side and the Hurricanes, before moving to Auckland and the Blues. It is understood that he has expressed a desire to play in the Aviva Premiership.

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Ihaia West

Ihaia West

Hawke’s Bay and Maori All Blacks flyhalf Ihaia West has signed with the Blues for the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons.

It has been a remarkable rise for the 22-year-old livewire who was without a Super Rugby contract at the start of the year and joined the Blues in April to provide cover for the injured Baden Kerr.

West has become a revelation for the franchise, claiming the number 10 jersey for the last three games and leading the team around the field with aplomb.

Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan lauded West’s temperament and was delighted to retain his services for the next two years.

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Keven MealamuKeven Mealamu will become the first player to reach the remarkable milestone of 150 games for the Blues when he runs out to face the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night.

The talismanic hooker has already racked up 160 Super Rugby appearances including his season with the Chiefs in 2000, but will play his 150th game for the Blues against the Red and Blacks.

The All Blacks centurion is only two matches away from equalling the record held by Nathan Sharpe for the most Super Rugby appearances (162), and is second only to Colin Meads in first class games after playing his 350th match against the Force on Saturday.

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Beauden Barrett

Beauden Barrett

All Black Beauden Barrett may be in the market, but he is definitely not on the Blues’ wishlist.

Barrett revealed that he is likely to resolves the issues around his future next week, when the Hurricanes have a bye.

However, he should be expecting a call from Blues coach John Kirwan, who said he would be looking internally for a flyhalf.

It followed speculation the Hurricanes playmaker, Barrett, could be moving to Auckland.

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CrusadersHurricanesHighlandersChiefsBluesThere is just six competition points separating the five New Zealand Conference teams, but with four intense local derbies to come, there is no chance of the Kiwi teams dominating the 2014 Super Rugby Finals Series.

The Crusaders and Highlanders destinies are in their own hands, although in a delicious twist of fate those two meet in the final round so that clash could be for a top six berth.

The Hurricanes, just one point behind, do not have their fate completely in their own hands, one of just two teams with only one fixture remaining.

The Blues and Chiefs need results to go their way if they are to survive.

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BluesSteven Luatua returns to the starting fifteen of the Blues for Saturday’s clash against the Force in Perth.

The 23-year-old blindside flanker has not featured in the run-on side since Round 10 against the Hurricanes after being squeezed out by the in-form Peter Saili, but head coach Sir John Kirwan said it was time to give Luatua an opportunity.

“He’s been away with the All Blacks and he’s come back full of energy and I think he needs an opportunity to push his way back into the side,” Kirwan said.

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Luke Braid

Luke Braid

Blues openside flanker Luke Braid will have shoulder surgery during Super Rugby’s off-season, which rules him out of Auckland’s ITM Cup campaign.

The 25-year-old has been superb for his team this season but has been feeling pain during his showings, leading to him making the decision.

“It had got to the point where it was hurting more frequently,” Braid said.

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Jerome Kaino

Jerome Kaino

Jerome Kaino always knew that coming back to New Zealand from Japan in an attempt to make the All Blacks again would be tough, not just because of the quality of fellow loose forward contenders.

The rise in intensity from Japan’s top flight to the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition has also been an eye-opener.

“I wouldn’t say it has been easy,” the Auckland Blues forward said at All Blacks’ training in Wellington on Monday.

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Dan Bowden

Dan Bowden

Dan Bowden is coming home after signing with New Zealand Rugby and the Blues for the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons.

28-year-old Bowden, a former Highlander and Crusader, has been playing rugby in England since 2010 and is relishing the opportunity of returning to Auckland where he grew up.

“I’m really excited to be returning home along with my four-month-old baby and wife. I had opportunities to stay in the UK but coming back to be around my family and playing for the Blues is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Bowden said.

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New Zealand Super Rugby Franchise Jerseys with child names

New Zealand Super Rugby Franchise Jerseys with child names

The jerseys of the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams will look slightly different this weekend.

All of the jerseys being worn by the five New Zealand-based Super Rugby squads have been customised for Round 15 with the name of a different child.

It was done as part of a charity initiative run by the BNZ in aid of Plunket – New Zealand’s largest provider of support services for the development, health and well-being of children under the age of 5.

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Special EditionSuper RugbyThe lowest mark for a Super Rugby Finals Series qualifier over recent years has been 53, meaning that this season one can mathematically assume in 2014 at least 45 points gives a team a chance of playing knockout rugby.

Remember 8 less points are on offer in 2014 with nothing awarded for a bye.

The Melbourne Rebels are now out of calculations, for while a potentially brilliant perfect 25 from 25 points in their closing run covers the rudimentary maths, they would need to rely on a perfect maelstrom of losing chaos at the top of the table.

The Blues, although 1oth and in a precarious position on the Log, have 5 games left, but from hereon in it is crunch time for them. They almost need a flawless run from here and a loss to the Sharks, will certainly put them out of the running on the weekend.

For the Vodacom Bulls, it becomes doubly difficult now, they only have 4 games left, compared to 5 by most of the teams above them in the pecking order. One more loss, and you can write them off. They need a near perfect run in their 4 games, earning at least 17 Log points from 4 games, so that means at least one bonus point try win and the rest all wins.

Evaluation in reverse order:

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BluesLuke BraidLuke Braid returns from injury to captain the Blues against the Sharks at QBE Stadium in North Harbour on Friday night.

The openside flanker missed the last two games against the Chiefs and Reds with a shoulder injury, but after another week off with the bye Braid is back to full fitness and raring to go.

“It was really important to make sure we gave Luke time to recover from his shoulder,” Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan said.

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George MoalaBluesBlues head coach Sir John Kirwan has made just one injury-enforced change to the starting 15 for Friday’s match against reigning champions the Chiefs at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth.

With midfielder Francis Saili suffering a high ankle sprain in the lead up to last week’s clash with the Reds and Jackson Willison succumbing to a hamstring strain during the game, George Moala has been promoted from the bench to start at centre.

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