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Pulu a bright spark for gloomy Blues

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Augustine Pulu's performances, including against the Crusaders, have shone a rare bright light for the Blues. / Photo: Photosport

By Patrick McKendry

It's not looking great for the Blues, who have lost their last three matches and let slip a 19-point lead against the Crusaders, but halfback Augustine Pulu at least can allow himself a sense of satisfaction for hitting the type of form which should put him back into All Blacks contention.

Apart from Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock, who is reaching new levels of performance despite the added burden of the captaincy duties in Kieran Read's absence, Pulu was probably the best player on the pitch at AMI Stadium.

The 27-year-old's great strength is his running game, and he was a constant threat against the Crusaders in the first half in scoring a try and having a hand in George Moala's two.

One of coach Tana Umaga's biggest complaints in assessing the relative performances of No10s Ihaia West and Piers Francis following his team's previous loss to the Highlanders at Eden Park was the sense that the Blues are burdening their first-fives with all the decision-making and creativity.

Well, Pulu did his bit in Christchurch and played with a freedom which lit a fire under the visitors and saw them race to a 24-5 lead just after halftime before the Crusaders began their almost inevitable comeback.

Scott Robertson's men scored 28 unanswered points in the final 33 minutes to deny the Blues their first win in the city since 2004, the match memorable for the length-of-the-field try started and finished by the one and only Carlos Spencer.

And there was a hint of Spencer's skills in the way Pulu, the former Chiefs and New Zealand sevens player, passed the ball out of the back of his hand, followed up, and crashed over for his try.

It was the continuation of his outstanding form for the Blues since joining in the off season and he must be back in the frame for the All Blacks.

He has played two tests - at the end of 2014 - but has had to fight back from two broken arms over the past couple of years and now that Chiefs rival Tawera Kerr-Barlow has announced he will be leaving for French club La Rochelle at the end of the year, Pulu should get a chance to impress on the All Blacks' November tour at least.

Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara were the two halfbacks favoured by the All Blacks selectors last year, and Smith's struggles on and off the field in the latter part of last year have provided more opportunities for Perenara.

It is one of the most tightly contested positions in New Zealand rugby at the moment, with Pulu getting the better of Smith at Eden Park recently, and Kerr-Barlow dominating Perenara in the Chiefs recent victory against the Hurricanes at Waikato Stadium.

The battle between Perenara and Smith at Westpac Stadium during the Hurricanes' 41-15 win at the weekend was probably a draw, although Perenara was sinbinned for a high tackle and Smith was slightly busier with his running game.

Continued below.

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The performance of Pulu will again be crucial for the Blues against the Bulls at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday. The Bulls, with only one win from three matches this season, will look to exploit the weaknesses up front exposed by the Crusaders during their romp home and Pulu's attacking game will be key.

Their littlest player could again prove their most important.

How All Blacks No9 contenders are measuring up:

Aaron Smith (Highlanders)

Average minutes per game: 67.3

Carries per game: 5.8

Average gain: 3.6m

Defenders beaten per game: 2

Offloads per game: 1

Try assists per game: 0.8

Augustine Pulu (Blues)

Average minutes per game: 70.5

Carries per game: 12.3

Average gain: 4.5m

Defenders beaten per game: 3

Offloads per game: 1.5

Try assists per game: 0.5

TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)

Average minutes per game: 66.3

Carries per game: 7.5

Average gain: 4.4m

Defenders beaten per game: 1.5

Offloads per game: 0.8

Try assists per game: 0.8

Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs)

Average minutes per game: 72

Carries per game: 6.3

Average gain: 6.5m

Defenders beaten per game: 1.8

Offloads per game: 1.5

Try assists per game: 0.5

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