Ofa Tuungafasi needed 28 stitches in his head after catching a stray boot during the Blues’ 25-0 victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend.
The gruesome injury failed to stop him getting back into the defensive line – a sign of commitment that his team may need against the Crusaders on Friday.
If the Blues’ shutout victory over the Chiefs last weekend despite playing with 13 men for almost 10 minutes was evidence of a tectonic shift within a traditionally underperforming franchise, Tuungafasi’s actions with blood streaming from his head after making a tackle may be its personification.
Tuungafasi later posted a picture of his newly-stitched head, blood still visible on his face, on social media after his team’s victory at FMG Stadium Waikato, and skipper Dalton Papalii admitted on Wednesday that he had little sympathy immediately after the incident.
“I remember he made a tackle and I picked him up and he looked at me and his whole face… but you’re not injured on defence so I told him to get up and get back in the line and he tried to make a hit and got dizzy,” Papalii said.
The Blues will hope that Tuungafasi’s commitment is contagious because while they haven’t beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch since 2004, their recent performances featuring a newly-acquired relentlessness on defence and attack suggest they have a better than average chance this time.
Tuungafasi, his head bandaged and with the relative protection of headgear, will start in the No.3 jersey at Orangetheory Stadium.
His side are above the Crusaders on the Super Rugby Pacific table, albeit by virtue of a better points differential. They will face a red and black team that failed to display its trademark accuracy and efficiency in unconvincing recent victories over the Highlanders and Hurricanes.
This was always going to be a monumental clash in the wider context of the competition and it comes after their first scheduled meeting on round five on March 20 was cancelled due to Covid.
It comes too with several intriguing storylines quite apart from the Blues’ long victory drought in Christchurch and the northerners’ recent form after winning last year’s trans-Tasman competition.
Luke Romano’s return to his old franchise – where he played for 12 years before being deemed surplus to requirements – is one in itself, as is the return from injury of midfielder Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Tuivasa-Sheck, the former Warriors skipper, hasn’t played since the Blues’ win over the Chiefs at Eden Park on March 5 due to a shoulder injury.
Prop Nepo Laulala is on reserves bench after serving his three-week ban and there is power and pace throughout the Blues' line-up. Injured loose forward Akira Ioane trained today but is not considered fit enough to play after recovering from a foot injury.
Coventry and Papalii confirmed the Blues’ win over the Chiefs had boosted their confidence but had done little more ahead of what has traditionally been the biggest test of a New Zealand side’s pedigree – playing the Crusaders at home.
“At times we were under the pump, with 13 men at one stage, and managed to hold the Chiefs scoreless as everyone knows,” Coventry said. “That’s a good sign but it gives us nothing more than confidence heading into this match."
Papalii said: “Belief is a big part of it. We haven’t beaten them down there in a while.
“We’re building this year and there’s something special in this group that I’ve felt in patches in previous years. It’s been consistent ever since that loss to the Canes in the first round.”
Coventry added: “They’re the team that have had successive victories in championships – back to back. Teams have been chasing them for a long time. But history has to be changed at some time so it’s our turn to have a go. We respect them and admire what they’ve done, but we’ve just got to go down there and do what we have to do.
“You have to go there and play… you have to stick to your guns.”
Blues team to play Crusaders at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch, kick-off at 7.05pm on Friday is:
1. Alex Hodgman
2. Kurt Eklund
3. Ofa Tuungafasi
4. Luke Romano
5. Josh Goodhue
6. Tom Robinson
7. Dalton Papalii ©
8. Hoskins Sotutu
9. Finlay Christie
10. Beauden Barrett
11. Mark Telea
12. Bryce Heem
13. Reiko Ioane
14. AJ Lam
15. Stephen Perofeta
16. Ricky Riccitelli
17. Jordan Lay
18. Nepo Laulala
19. James Tucker
20. Adrian Choat
21. Taufa Funaki
22. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
23. Zarn Sullivan/Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepens