Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders v Blues

The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Chiefs

After losing their last 2 games, the Blues returned to Eden Park to take on the Chiefs. With the Crusaders losing to the Hurricanes the day before, the Blues knew that a win would put them back in the hunt, and they got off to a great start just 6 minutes in when a slight of hand from Reiko Ioane and a brilliant line from Matt Duffie saw the fullback score from the first phase of a scrum with just 5 minutes gone. The Blues soon doubled their lead as captain Patrick Tuipulotu made it over the line, but the Chiefs soon pulled one back through flanker Lachlan Boshier, with Damian Mckenzie kicking the conversion to make it 14-7, a score which remained throughout the second quarter.

The Chiefs came out of the blocks quicker following the break and soon had their reward as a great move off a scrum down the blind side released Solomon Alaimalo to score – though he injured himself in the process. McKenzie kicked the conversion and added a penalty a few minutes later to put the team ahead for the first time in the match. The lead didn’t last long however, as Finlay Christie forced himself over for the go-ahead score on 55 minutes, with Beauden Barrett – starting at 10 for the first time in his Blues career following Otere Black’s late recovery from a neck injury – kicking his 3ʳᵈ conversion to make the score 21-7. Both teams continued to battle, but things didn’t look good for the Blues as they conceded a penalty 5 metres out in the middle of the pitch with 2 minutes left and lost Harry Plummer to the bin. However with the game on the line, Josh Goodhue managed to get over the ball on the line and won a crucial penalty, allowing the Blues to clear their lines and see out the final seconds in safety, before kicking the ball into touch to put them back to 2ⁿᵈ in the table.

Toeing the line

The Blues defence in this game was out to have an impact. The team were putting the pressure on the Chiefs right from the first minute, with Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Tuipulotu, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane all leading the way with double-digit tackles. It took a moment of great footwork from McKenzie to break through the defensive line and put the Blues on the back foot for Boshier’s try, while Alaimalo’s try came from a great move to effectively work the numbers down the blind side. With such dedicated defence like this, they won’t be easy to score against.

Except for one big problem. To have such an impact, they were playing so close to the line between what was legal and what was illegal. As a result, they finished the game with 14 penalties conceded, many for offside or defensive infringements at the breakdown as dominant tackles saw them end up on the wrong side of the ruck or the next player in went a little too far in trying to win the ball back. It was this accumulation of penalties that led to Harry Plummer’s yellow card for the team’s repeat infringements, and being a back down with a penalty where it was should have cost them the game (more on that later).

If the Blues can defend like this in the remaining games, they have a good chance of challenging for the title, but they need to be careful to stay on the right side of the officials or a better team will take advantage of the penalties.

Scrum success

The Blues’ scrum has been one of the most successful in the tournament, and it certainly looked it in this match. With some big bodies behind them, the Blues front row has done a great job of at least holding parity with their opponents, and often overpowering them. Ofa Tu’ungafasi looks in great form not just at the scrum but also around the park and had a great day against Reuben O’Neill. On the other side of the front row, Alex Hodgman appeared to struggle for almost the first time this tournament against All Black Nepo Laulala, but the coaches moved quickly, replacing him at the early signs that he was losing his duel and bringing on All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, who immediately solidified that side of the scrum and got the Blues pack back on the front foot. Andit was clear that the Chiefs knew the Blues had the dominance there too.

With a 78ᵗʰ minute penalty being earned 5 minutes from the Blues try line in a central position, and with the Blues down a back following Plummer’s yellow card. The clear tactical decision is to go for a scrum, as it ties in the forwards and allows the backs to exploit the extra number. However such had been the performance of the Blues scrum, the Chiefs did not feel confident enough to call for the scrum, instead going for the tap-and-go and giving away the crucial penalty a few phases later.

As long as the Blues scrum can continue performing like this, they will remain in a strong position.

More of the same

It says it all really that when Josh Goodhue won that 79ᵗʰ minute penalty, my shock lasted just a couple of seconds. It’s a little harsh to say, but this was another typical Chiefs performance.

As with pretty much every match this season – last week’s loss to the Highlanders was an aberration – the Chiefs found themselves starting slowly and conceding 2 tries before they managed to score one of their own. Then once again with the game on the line in the final minutes, questionable decisions and not good enough play ended up costing them.

This is an horrific run from the Chiefs and it needs to be stopped soon. It says it all that from 5 matches, they have come away with 4 bonus points for losing by 7 or less. They are staying within games, but are failing to put together the 80 minute performance needed to turn these close defeats into wins. And with Warren Gatland taking the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in less than a year, I can’t help but wonder how much his mind is on the Chiefs and if any changes will be made any time soon.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Hurricanes v Blues

The second half of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off with the reverse fixtures from Round 1 and the Hurricanes hosting the Blues in Wellington. It was a match notable for Beauden Barrett’s return to Sky Stadium after leaving for the Blues, and home fans were ecstatic to see him beaten on the outside by Ngani Laumape just minutes into the match for the opening try. Barrett soon got the chance to laugh back as he slipped through a gap to score on 10 minutes. Another charge from Laumape saw Emoni Narawa sent to the bin, but the Blues emerged from this unscathed, before Dalton Papali’i was driven over at the other end. Reed Prinsep crossed for the Hurricanes’ 2ⁿᵈ try of the game and on the stroke of halftime, Jordie Barrett kicked a penalty to level the scores at 15-15.

The tries kept coming after halftime, with Dane Coles running a clever line to go over from short range just a few minutes into the half, but the Blues fought back and scored 2 more tries through Akira Ioane and Kurt Eklund. As the clock ticked into the final minutes it looks like the Blues were going to get back to winning ways, but a late lineout drive saw replacement hooker Asafo Aumua cross to level the scores, with Jordie Barrett nailing the conversion to seal a 29-27 victory and spoil his older brother’s return home.

He came in like a wrecking ball

I’ve noted a couple of times throughout the tournament how the Hurricanes appeared to be struggling to utilise Ngani Laumape, but appeared to be getting closer last week. Well this week, everything clipped. Laumape showed a surprising turn of pace on a couple of attacks out wide – beating Beauden Barrett around the outside just a couple of minutes in – and combined this well with his monstrous physicality to devastating effect.

The ‘Canes centre finished the game with 17 carries for 160 metres, with 4 clean breaks and 5 defenders beaten, and was unlucky not to get a second try shortly after his first as 3 men combined to stop him inches short, leading to Narawa’s yellow card when he refused to roll away. It genuinely felt like every time he got the ball he was making big yards to put the team on the front foot. Even defensively he had an impact, only making 3 tackles but with some of them coming in key moments as the ‘Canes fought to come from behind.

I always felt that leaving Laumape out of the Rugby World Cup squad was a mistake. If he can keep up this form, only an idiot would not bring him back into the squad.

Selection error?

While Laumape was virtually unstoppable in this match, I also think that he was helped by an error in selection from the Blues.

Harry Plummer at 12 creates a great playmaking axis with Otere Black and Beauden Barrett, but I was personally expecting the more defensively solid TJ Faiane to get the start. Even before we knew who the ‘Canes were playing at centre, you just have to look at their options – Laumape, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Billy Proctor and Vince Aso – to know that they will be coming with a physical approach. Then you have to account for players like Ardie Savea and Ben Lam… this is a physical Hurricanes team.

Now Plummer didn’t do bad, but he did only complete 8/10 tackles in his 45 minutes on the pitch, during which time Laumape ran riot. When Faiane took over at 12, Laumape’s impact on the game was lessened, but too late as he had already done the damage.

With the Chiefs visiting Eden Park next week, the coaches have a big decision to make at 12.

Flying Scotsman

If Scotland want to be successful in the coming years then I hope they are paying some serious attention to Finlay Christie. The 24-year-old was born in Peebles, Scotland, but moved to New Zealand when he was 7. Having previously played for the Chiefs and ‘Canes, he is onto his 3ʳᵈ Super Rugby franchise, but looks in a great position to cement a starting spot ahead of Sam Nock and Jonathan Ruru.

Christie controls the game so well, keeping a good tempo to the phases, and while his kicking game isn’t elite, I would argue that it is better than current Scottish internationals Ali Price and George Horne. But even more so, he is an accomplished defender, with this game highlighting his skills as he repeatedly snagged Ardie Savea and single-handedly stopped him carrying off the back of scrums, while he also put in a fine cover tackle on opposite number TJ Perenara. Watching him play, I’m confident that he could quickly establish himself in the Scottish XV if he were to move North.

But more than that, this game really highlighted to me a certain ability to just be a nuisance. This doesn’t surprise me too much given the time he spent playing at the Hurricanes as backup to TJ Perenara, who makes nuisance an art form. As well as causing issues for Savea picking up from the base of the scrum, Christie did a good job n the whole of blocking Perenara off from getting to his own number 8, while he also cheekily took his chance to reach over a ruck after Perenara picked up the ball in order to smack it out of his hands. He’s certainly on his way to becoming the type of scrum half that is hated by everyone but his own team, and that’s exactly what the Scots need.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Crusaders v Blues

We’ve reached Round 5 of Super Rugby Aotearoa and with the table starting to take clear shape, the round began with arguably the biggest match so far as 3-0 the Blues made the trip to Christchurch to take on the table-topping Crusaders. Coming off a bye week, the Blues looked slightly fresher in the early stages and took the lead on 10 minutes as Mark Telea crossed in the corner. Otere Black kicked the conversion, but 2 penalties from Richie Mo’unga kept the home team in touch as they went into the break down 6-7.

After Black and Mo’unga traded penalties early in the first half, a quick-tap penalty from Akira Ioane took the Blues up to the Crusaders try line and as the ball came wide, younger brother Reiko powered over to extend the lead, but Black’s conversion was blocked by Braydon Ennor. The game had already been played at a great level, but it went up a couple of notches from the restart as Richie Mo’unga caught the Blues out with a quick kick-off to himself, and the Crusaders began to take control. Great timing by Mo’unga set George Bridge free down the left wing and he played the ball back inside for replacement scrum half Mitchell Drummond to put his team back ahead. Mo’unga scored another penalty and then replacement Will Jordan crossed with 5 minutes left to secure a 26-15 win and their 36ᵗʰ consecutive unbeaten game at home.

Game of the tournament?

The Blues may have come away with no points from this game, but everyone who watched it was a winner. It’s hard to imagine that we will see a better game in this season’s tournament, and if we do then we are so incredibly lucky!

Sometimes you will see a game reach halftime with a scoreline around double figures and wonder why you wasted the last 40 minutes of your life, but this was a much better affair than the 6-7 scoreline suggested. Neither team wanted to give an inch as they knew their opponent would try to take a mile and it led to a full-blooded contest as both teams went all out for the win, while not overflowing into handbags or any nasty situations. And then following Ioane’s try the game reached an even higher level, leaving me unable to take my eyes off the game! The skill of the New Zealand franchises has led to some wonderful matches that Super Rugby AU teams have been unable to replicate – though admittedly they are earlier in their run so are still working out any rustiness – and I am currently finding myself uninterested in the return of Northern Hemisphere rugby as I can’t see it reaching the same level.

From a rugby perspective, Super Rugby Aotearoa has been one of the best stories to come out of the pandemic, giving us 2 great games of rugby every week But even more than that, this was the perfect advert for the game of rugby.

Routine change

“To beat them, you need to start big to get the momentum, defend to the death and ensure that you come away with points every time you get a chance… and then hope they don’t have a moment of magic!” – Highlanders v Crusaders

Well, the Blues almost managed the above, but unfortunately for them Braydon Ennor’s charge down of Otere Black’s conversion attempt following Reiko Ioane’s try proved to be a huge momentum changer, from which the Crusaders took control and scored 17 unanswered points. Black’s conversion was from a position relatively close to the posts, but as his kicking routine sees him take a step backwards to begin his advance towards the ball, giving Ennor the time to get out and make the block.

The laws state that players cannot begin to advance beyond their try line “until the kicker begins the approach to kick”, but so many kickers these days have developed a routine for their kicks that involves some kind of step backwards or other movement that is generally counted as the beginning of their kicking motion. I always remember a young James O’Connor having Peter Stringer steal the ball off of his tee due to a tell that was counted as the start of his kicking movement, while Rob Cook had an interesting and a few other players have had some interesting stances and start their movement by going to a more traditional stance. All of these situations are just giving the defence that extra little chance to get out and stop the kick, or at least put pressure on the kicker.

Going forwards, kickers need to look at this incident and consider the impact their kicking routine has on their success. Kickers are creatures of habit, which is why you often see them still take the time to go through their full process for the easy kicks right in front of the posts. As I see it, those with the riskier kicking routines should be considering one of the following:

  • Having a much shorter routine for the kicks closer to the posts (unlikely in my opinion as switching between 2 routines could upset their kicking rhythm)
  • Working with a kicking coach to develop a new routine where they feel comfortable and are able to have success without having any step back or movement that could slow down/be considered as the start of their move forward
  • Moving the more central kicks further from the try line to give them more time by forcing the defenders to cover more ground

Taking your chance

James Parsons has started the campaign so well, it would often be considered a big hit to lose him less than 30 minutes into the game following a head injury in a friendly fire incident with Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Not in this match, though, as replacement hooker Kurt Eklund played an absolute blinder.

As well as having a good day at the set piece on the whole, Eklund’s 30 metres made from 6 carries was 2ⁿᵈ highest in the Blues team in this game, behind only Mark Telea. He continually helped to put the Blues on the front foot and if anything, I felt that his use made the team even more dangerous than Parsons.

Hopefully Parsons will recover quickly following his failed HIA, but even if he is fit, don’t be shocked if Eklund is given the starting spot next weekend.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Highlanders

Round 3 of Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off at Eden Park today s the Blues took on the Highlanders. The Blues topped the standings with 2 wins from 2 and got off to a perfect start as Caleb Clarke scored the opening try within just 6 minutes. The Highlanders levelled things up as captain Ash Dixon was driven over the line, but they soon found themselves behind as Scott Gregory’s attempted clearance from his own try line was charged down to gift Dalton Papali’i a try, while Reiko Ioane got on the end of a Caleb Clarke break soon after to extend the lead to 22-10 by halftime.

The Blues were slow out of the blocks in the second half and paid the price as Mitch Hunt slipped through for a try, and things soon got worse as Reiko Ioane was sent to the sin bin and Shannon Frizell crossed for a try soon after, with Mitch Hunt kicking the conversion to give the Highlanders an 22-24 win. This provoked an immediate reaction from the Blues, though, who made their way downfield before retaking the lead as Dalton Papali’i crossed for a second try off a lineout drive. Then with just minutes left, the Blues managed to turn over an attempted catch and drive from the Highlanders before winning the penalty at the resultant scrum to clean their lines and hold on for the 27-24 victory.

A day to forget

Making your first Super Rugby start is so usually a moment to remember, but for Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory, it was a match to forget. The young player, available due to the Olympics being pushed back a year, was making only his second appearance for the Highlanders but looked out of his depth at 15.

The first half gave him very little chance to attack, but in a more defensive role, things didn’t really go well for him. He was ran over by Caleb Clarke for the first try, but his big issue was dealing with the Blues’ kicking game, where he dropped two high balls with pressure coming but no real contest for the space. He also really struggled covering the Blues’ kicks to the corners, most notably in the 23ʳᵈ minute when he took too long gathering the kick and found his own kick from his try line charged down by Hoskins Sotutu for Papali’i to score a crucial try. Gregory was eventually removed after an hour, but the damage had already been done.

Now Gregory is a fantastic player, but fullback is a very difficult position to play, especially when a team has multiple playmakers to keep their kicking options open – not to mention forwards Sotutu and James parsons, who also put in some quality kicks during the game. It will take a 7s player time to adapt to the lack of space on the pitch and the kicking game in 15s. I can see Gregory getting another shot to start next week, but I think that he would benefit from a slightly less exposed position like on the wing.

Caps coming

Being at the start of a new World Cup cycle and with a new coach at the helm of the All Blacks, this is a crucial time to be putting in big performances. A number of the Blues are surely putting their hands up for international selection.

Reiko Ioane found himself drop down the pecking order at wing during the latter days of Steve Hansen’s tenure, but he is proving a match-up nightmare at his preferred position of 13 and will surely be pushing for the starting spot there for the All Blacks, especially with Jack Goodhue currently playing at 12 for the Crusaders.

Caleb Clarke put in another stunning performance with a try and a break to set up Ioane, and the performance was made even more impressive with the news that his grandfather had passed away that morning – explaining his apparent emotion just before kickoff. He may only have a few matches under his belt at this point, but he’s been one of the stars of the tournament and is surely jumping up the pecking order.

Hoskins Sotutu has been probably the star of the tournament so far despite being only 21 and with the 6 and 8 shirts both up for grabs, you’d imagine that he will take one of those, while his fellow back row Dalton Papali’i is certainly having an impact on games and will be hoping to break into the All Blacks 23.

Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have been the All Blacks lock pair for so long, but Patrick Tuipulotu has hit the form of his life at just the right time, while his leadership of a successful Blues team will really help put himself in contention for a starting spot.

Wrong priorities

Now first of all, I want to acknowledge that as fans, we would much rather see rugby being played than constant kicks off the tee. However, rugby is a business and winning needs to come first. New Zealand as a whole is a fantastic rugby playing nation, but sometimes, they play too much rugby, which was the case today.

With 10 minutes left and holding a 3-point lead, the Blues won an easily kickable penalty. However, rather than going for goal and making the Highlanders need a converted try to go ahead, they kicked for the corner and almost paid the price, as James Parsons dropped the ball over the line and a Highlanders counterattack ended in a penalty that would have drawn the teams level had Mitch Hunt not missed.

Then just 3 minutes from the end, the Highlanders turned down a kickable penalty that would have taken the game to extra time in favour of kicking for the corner and trying to win in 80 minutes. This proved costly as the Blues managed to hold out the maul and win the scrum, where they then won a penalty to clear their lines and confirm the win.

We all love seeing positive rugby, but there is also a time for pragmatism. New Zealand haven’t quite got the balance right and sometimes in close games, it will end up costing them.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Chiefs v Blues

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.

Playmaker plans

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.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues v Hurricanes

While the world continued to go to **** in the UK and USA, normalcy returned in New Zealand as a sell-out crowd gathered at Eden Park to watch the second game of Super Rugby Aotearoa, as the Blues hosted the Hurricanes.

This marked the debut of Beauden Barrett for the Blues, as the man widely considered the best fly half in the world faced off against his old team, but for this match he was at fullback while Otere Black took the reins at 10. Black put in one of his best Super Rugby performances to date, including a perfect performance off the tee that proved key in giving the team a 1-point lead at halftime, both teams having scored 2 tries. The skills of the Blues back line saw them pull away in the second half, however, with a late Jamie Booth try making the final score look more respectable at 30-20.

Star-studded Blues

One thing this match really highlighted is the talent of the Blues back line. With Beauden Barrett deployed at 15, he created a great playmaking axis that helped take the pressure off Black. On the wings, Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke (available due to the Olympics being pushed back) showed the game-changing ability that allows the Blues to move Reiko Ioane inside to 13, where his underappreciated strength and incredible pace create a nightmare match-up. TJ Faiane put in a an assured performance to solidify the back line, while also providing a lovely assist for Dalton Papali’i with a perfectly weighted grubber kick.

And the scariest thing about it all? They have options beyond this. Harry Plummer and Matt Duffie are both more-than-capable playmakers at 10 and 15 respectively, allowing so many different combinations with Barrett and Black… oh and then there’s some chap called Dan Carter with the team as injury cover for Stephen Perofeta. And finally, you have the quality of centre Joe Marchant who can create a different dynamic in the midfield if the coaches want to rest Ioane or utilise him in the wing.

Quit whining!

We’re only 2 matches into the tournament and already I’m sick of listening to the pundits and commentators complaining about the referees giving so many penalties. The focus on the breakdown during this tournament has been clearly advertised – including by these pundits during the game – and the onus should be on the players to play the game legally rather than on the referee to keep the game flowing in these cases.

Its not as if the players should really be having to change their game much if they played it right, as the only actual change to the laws is the need for the jackal to attempt to lift the ball rather than stay in place. The rest of the changes are just encouraging the officials to enforce the laws that are already in place.

Yes, we all want to see flowing games rather than 20+ penalties, but the referees are finally doing their job and enforcing the laws. If professionals are going to be paid by the broadcasters to come on and share their knowledge to the wider public, they should be highlighting the players’ lack of adaptation to the laws rather than encouraging the officials to wilfully ignore infringements – we’ve had enough of that in recent years and it’s frankly made the game dangerous!

Wasted talent

Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Ngani Laumape and think that he should be the starting 12 for the All Blacks. So when he has a quiet game and his team lose, it’s something that I notice.

While Jackson Garden-Bachop had an assured game, he didn’t appear to utilise Laumape much in the midfield, at it was only in the final quarter that he appeared to really get the chance to run at the opposition, generally out wide rather than centrally. For a player so effective at setting a platform, he should have been getting the ball regularly, and I think the absence showed as there were very few players regularly putting the team on the front foot, which really caused issues in the second half as the Blues back line took over and the ‘Canes had no answer.

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Eyes On: Blues v British and Irish Lions

The Lions continued their tour of New Zealand with their first midweek game against Tana Umaga’s Blues. This was their first match against Super Rugby opposition as they continue to build towards the first Test against the All Blacks in on the 24th.

After a poor showing in their opening game against the Provincial Barbarians, Warren Gatland picked a completely new starting XV, with a number of players who started the opener joining Peter O’Mahony and Liam Williams on the bench. Though they played much better than on Saturday, a late converted try from Ihaia West put the Blues 22-16 ahead and an errant throw from replacement hooker Rory Best at a line-out 7 metres from the Blues try-line denied the Lions a chance of claiming victory with the last play of the game.

As we begin to look towards Saturday’s game against the Crusaders, here are my thoughts on Game 2 of the Tour.

 

A better performance… but improvements needed

Though the result did not go the way Lions fans will have wanted, this was a much better performance than against the Barbarians. Dan Biggar looked settled until his injury and Johnny Sexton, who came on as his replacement around the 35 minute mark, had a better performance than at the weekend. The back line as a whole appeared much more involved than in the first game, and Rhys Webb provided some zip to the attack. In the pack, the scrum was a formidable weapon and Ken Owen’s decision to kick a 15th minute penalty to the corner – and the subsequent try from CJ Stander – showed that the Lions have real faith in the strength of their pack compared to their opponents. This is certainly an area where the All Blacks will be watching nervously.

However the performance was far from perfect. The attacking from the backs looked very limited, with much of the play just going from side to side without any real penetration. The defence however was cut open far too easily, and appeared to struggle with the host’s offloads. Rhys Webb may have played well on the whole but his box kicks were frequently too long to compete for and merely handed possession back to the Blues. To make matters worse, their discipline was atrocious. Against the Barbarians, the referee had to repeatedly warn the forwards to keep the gap at line-outs, but today I counted 2 free kicks conceded for this offence, along with at least 2 penalties for other – completely avoidable – offences at the line-out (Lawes grabbing the man in the air, Biggar encroaching). Liam Williams gave away a good position on the pitch with a stupid tackle of a player in the air and clearly didn’t learn from this by doing the same thing again mere minutes later, earning him 10 minutes in the sin bin at a crucial point in the game. To beat the other franchises – not to mention the All Blacks – the Lions will need to improve their discipline drastically, or teams will happily kick for territory and points all day long.

Defensive organisation

Jack Nowell was frequently picked out by the Sky Sports commentators as having a bad day and struggling to deal with Rieko Ioane, but while I agree that he can defend better than he did in this game I feel that he was not helped by the way that the Lions set up to defend so narrow. The Blues were happy to spread the ball from the start and even in the early minutes, I was noticing occasions where there were multiple attackers lined up outside Nowell and Elliot Daly, the Lions wingers. This happened a couple of times even before Ioane got outside Nowell to cross for the opening try. I understand that with players like Sonny Bill Williams in the midfield it is important to stop the opposition from breaking through the middle, but to make it easy for a team to get outside with a simple cross-kick or a few wide passes is madness! I have noticed in the Super Rugby highlights this year how accurate All Blacks fly half Beauden Barrett is with his cross-kicks. If the Lions wish to continue with this defensive tactic, I would not be surprised to see him take full advantage of this in the Tests.

From blue to black

In the same way that the Barbarians side contained a number of players looking to earn a Super Rugby contract, the Blues had a number of players hoping their performance will get them a place in the Test squad. Sonny Bill Williams’ performance gave credence to the phrase ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. He is still getting back to his best after his injury during the Rio Olympics but put in a vintage performance against the Lions. Right from the early minutes, Williams was putting himself about defensively, ripping the ball out of the hands of no less than CJ Stander and also winning a turnover deep in his 22 to end the Lions’ early dominance. His try on the stroke of half time was opportunistic, but would not have been possible if he had not reacted quicker than everyone around him. For the winning try, his attacking line on the shoulder of Steven Luatua cut the Lions defence apart and his offload to Ihaia West was him at his best. Even more impressive is that, as a devout Muslim, he is currently fasting during the day for Ramadan! It’s no surprise to have seen him named this morning in the All Blacks squad for the Tests and I would be surprised if he does not at least make the bench.

Selection headache

Dan Biggar left the pitch just before half time for a HIA and never returned to the pitch. He has been left out of the match day 23 for this weekend’s game against the Crusaders as he goes through return to play protocols. However, as we have seen with Dane Coles, there is no guarantee of a quick return to training, so with 2 games per week he could miss a considerable number of matches. If this means that Owen Farrell and Sexton are to both feature in each match over the next few weeks, there is a very good chance that they will be burned out by the time the Tests come around. With Scotland playing in Singapore on Saturday, I would not be surprised to see Finn Russell called up to the Lions squad as extra cover in the next few days.

More of the haka

Away from the rugby, I was happy to see on Tuesday that the Blues would be performing a haka before the game, as would each of the other Super Rugby franchises. As the world continues to modernise, I love to see that the Maori culture is still getting time in the public eye. As the announcement was so close to the game and this was the first time the Blues had performed a haka, I was expecting to see a performance of Ka Mate, so I was very happy to see the Blues perform He Toa Takitini (The Strength of Many). If all of the Super Rugby franchises are going to perform different hakas, then I think this will be great for the general public to see and will hopefully get more people interested in looking into the Maori culture.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge