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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo white

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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo black

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.

feat rugby super rugby aotearoa logo white

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