Rieko Ioane, one of the quickest players in New Zealand, if not Super Rugby Pacific, has a hamstring strain, an injury that may not necessarily trouble the Blues in the short term but may prove concerning as they eye the playoffs.
Ioane limped from the field after 11 minutes of his team’s 53-26 victory over the Reds at Eden Park on Saturday, a win which has taken their streak to 11 and came with a certain amount of inevitability after they led 22-14 at halftime.
His departure may ring the only note of concern for head coach Leon MacDonald, who has the luxury of putting the reliable Bryce Heem into the midfield alongside the improving Roger Tuivasa-Sheck should Ioane not be available to play the Brumbies and Waratahs in Australia over the next fortnight.
Heem scored a double after replacing Ioane on Saturday and has proven to be a solid operator for the Blues this season, but All Black Ioane has oozed quality over the last couple of weeks, is looking increasingly confident in the No13 jersey, and has what few other players have – extreme pace.
“He pulled up with what looked like a hamstring [strain] initially,” MacDonald told media after the match. “We’ve just got to monitor him. He’s smiling out there at the moment so hopefully it’s not too bad.”
Depending on the severity of the strain, MacDonald could be out for a fortnight at least.
Their eight-tries-to-four win over Brad Thorn’s Reds has given them a seven-point buffer over the Crusaders and Brumbies, they have locked in a home quarter-final, and it’s difficult to see them finishing anything other than first on the table after the regular season.
They have struck a rich vein of form – their attacking weapons Heem, Tuivasa-Sheck, Caleb Clarke, Stephen Perofeta and Mark Talea set off by the excellent Beauden Barrett, and no challenge appears insurmountable given the backline’s alignment with a pack as good as any in the competition – including the traditional standard-setting Crusaders.
Their support play showcased so brilliantly against the Rebels the weekend before was again prevalent against the Reds, and the only quibble performance-wise could the four tries they conceded. That is likely to be considered by MacDonald as too many and it came after the Rebels scored a couple of late ones in the Blues' 71-28 victory.
The squad depth that has got the Blues to this point will allow the Blues to cover for Iaone’s potential loss in the short term, but hamstring strains in elite sprint athletes can be problematic both in terms of recovery time and recurrence.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster is another who will be keeping close tabs on Ioane’s recovery - he’s already lost Anton Lienert-Brown for the July series against Ireland due to a shoulder injury, and, in what has become a problem area for New Zealand, Ioane has become a midfield fixture following his conversion from the left wing due to his consistency.
Fortunately for Foster, Crusader Jack Goodhue has begun his playing comeback well from a serious knee injury which ruled him out of the game for 12 months.
Goodhue started in the No.13 jersey for the Crusaders as they effectively shut the Brumbies out in the first half of their 37-26 victory in Canberra which puts them level on 43 points with their Aussie rivals.
The Brumbies scored early but the Crusaders quickly struck back via Codie Taylor and Sevu Reece, and with Richie Mo'unga kicking three consecutive penalties for a 23-5 halftime lead, the home side, who have chalked up wins over the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs this season, were virtually out of the game.
A Blues win over the Brumbies in Canberra next Saturday could give the Crusaders breathing room in second place after Scott Robertson's men face the Fijian Drua in Christchurch on Friday.