Today should have been the Super Rugby final, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought a premature end to the competition. Thankfully, New Zealand have effectively combated the disease, so we sill managed to get professional rugby today in the form of the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s second round.
Fresh off a narrow loss to the Highlanders last week, the Chiefs returned to Hamilton to host the Blues. So often, the Blues have been considered the weakest of the New Zealand franchises, but they came into this game off the back of a win and scored the opening try after 15 minutes as Hoskins Sotutu was driven over the line under the posts. However, poor discipline kept the Blues on the back foot for most of the fist half and allowed the Chiefs to stay close through the boot of Damian McKenzie. However, the game started to turn after the Blues survived 10 minutes with flanker Dalton Papali’i in the bin and the Chiefs then began to be the ones giving away the penalties, allowing Otere Black and Beauden Barrett to keep building a score, before Mark Telea crossed in the corner with 8 minutes left to confirm a 12-24 victory.
On the up
Since Super Rugby’s inception in 2011, New Zealand franchises have had a stranglehold on the competition, winning the title in 7 of the 9 completed seasons. The only New Zealand franchise to have not won the Super Rugby title is the Blues, who’s last win was back in 2003 when the competition was still Super 12! The Blues finished 4ᵗʰ in the inaugural 2011 season of Super Rugby, but lost in the semifinals and since then, their best finish in a season was 9ᵗʰ back in 2017. They have only had 2 seasons f Super Rugby where they finished with a winning record. And yet when Round 2 finishes, they will be on top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings.
It may still be early days, but his looks like a Blues team that is finally on the up and ready to compete towards the top of the table again. In winning this game, the Blues have just set a new franchise record for the most consecutive away wins (5). I wrote last week about the strength of the Blues back line, but the bad conditions today highlighted the strength of their pack. Even with the super-impressive Tom Robinson missing, they were able to put out a super physical and talented back row in Sotutu (who even at just 21 already looks like he should be playing for the All Blacks), Papali’i and Akira Ioane. Patrick Tuipulotu looks in the form of his life and leading by example, while Josh Goodhue is also putting in strong performances beside him. James Parsons provides great experience at hooker, while the props are all coming into their prime as they reach their late 20s. This is a team built to win not just now, but for the years to come too.
What may seem incredible right now is that the Blues are 2-0 without Dan Carter even making it into the matchday 23. Personally, I think that even if he barely takes the pitch, he will have been a fantastic signing as all the backs, especially young fly halves like Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta (whose injury opened the spot for Carter) will benefit so much from training with and learning from both Carter and Barrett, under the coaching of former All Blacks Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga.
Obviously there’s still a long way to go, with 6 more matches to play over the remaining 8 rounds, but don’t be surprised to see the Blues challenging towards the top over the next few seasons.
Sadly the conditions in Hamilton denied us the thrill of watching Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie face off at fullback in a running battle as the kicking game became the focus of the day. However, the continued use of both players at 15 is something to keep an eye on.
For so long, New Zealand have had superstars at fly half, which has led to the next generation coming through initially at 15 and eventually transitioning to first five-eighth. While this has led to incredibly talented attacking playmakers like Barrett and McKenzie, I do not think that they are able to control the game as well as the players that came before them and instead benefit from playing at 15, where they have more space to exploit.
By having these guys stationed at 15 for their club rugby, it is now giving the new generation of talent the chance to learn how to play at this level already at fly half. This is going to benefit so many of these players – such as Harry Plummer, Perofeta and Black (Blues), Kaleb Trask (Chiefs), Josh Ioane (Highlanders) and Jackson Garden-Bachop (Hurricanes) – as it means that they are learning under the pressure of having flankers charging at them, but then have the benefit of experienced playmakers elsewhere in the back line to help guide them.
The next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.
Set piece struggles
Last week, the Chiefs’ success was built largely on the strength of their catch-and-drive lineouts. This week, the set piece was an absolute nightmare.
At the lineout, the Blues were willing to put a man in the air to challenge and it led to a number of inaccuracies. The Chiefs lost 3 lineouts during the match, with one 5m out from the Chiefs line potentially costing them 5-7 points an another 5m out from their own line almost proving costly if not for a knock-on by Sam Nock as he tried to collect the loose ball.
It wasn’t even just the lineout that had issues, though, as the Chiefs lost 2 of the 6 scrums on their own feed. Tat already doesn’t sound good, but it’s even worse when you look back at the scrums and see them physically pushed off their own ball!
Mitchell Brown’s injury last week has left them with a talented by inexperienced pair at lock in Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Tupou Vaa’i, but this cannot be used as an excuse. The pack needs to improve the set piece soon, because if they can’t provide clean ball for their backs, it doesn’t matter how talented the players out there are.