Blues are letting the side down
OPINION: Let’s get the Blues out of the way and then move on to Super Rugby’s achievers.
Since winning the last of their three titles in 2003, the Blues have made the playoffs just twice. The most recent occasion was 2011, with the team finishing 12th, 10th, 10th, 14th, 11th and ninth in the years since. Saturday’s season-ending 48-21 capitulation to the Sunwolves in Tokyo would rank among the worst defeats suffered in that time.
You assume all concerned at the franchise are working hard to succeed. It’s just that the results don’t suggest a great deal of progress is being made.
Set-piece stability, an obvious gameplan and genuine on-field leadership have been among the issues and it’s hard to see how that will change greatly next year. Outstanding tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina is off to France, Steven Luatua - a regular source of lineout ball - will be in England and the unproven Otere Black has been recruited from the Hurricanes to steer the ship.
You look at the Blues and see talent and promise, but few players ever appear to kick on from their encouraging beginnings. Recruitment, coaching, culture; it’s hard to isolate a single root cause for it.
The most curious aspect is the absence of an outcry. Auckland is a big place and the Blues were New Zealand’s standard-bearers during Super Rugby’s early years.
You’d think the franchise could do much better and that people would care that it wasn’t.
BRUMBIES V HURRICANES
Those ‘fat’ Hurricanes, eh? How people chuckled when the Brumbies thrashed them 52-10, in round one of the 2016 season.
Teams latch on to any number of things to motivate themselves. Last year’s outcome - and namecalling - in Canberra aren’t the only things focusing the Hurricanes’ attention ahead of tonight’s game, but they’re not far down the list.
The Hurricanes scrum got pushed around that night too, which remains a source of embarrassment.
Assistant coach John Plumtree said this week that the team don’t care what people think of them. In reality, there are few slights not taken to heart and stored away and you can expect to see a very emotional Hurricanes team on display at GIO Stadium.
Teams always want to win but, in this case, beating the Brumbies is as much a matter of soothing stillwounded pride as progressing to the semifinals.
CRUSADERS V HIGHLANDERS
Would love to know what neutrals think of this one.
Crusaders fans will be sure their lot are going to win, while the Highlanders faithful will feel they’re due. They’ve certainly had the beating of this Crusaders team a couple of times this year, only to be pipped at the death.
People have waited to see some vulnerability in the Crusaders and their last three outings have provided it. Beaten by the British and Irish Lions, they lost to the Highlanders in an international-window friendly and then suffered their first defeat in a competition game to the Hurricanes last week.
They’ll tell themselves that only the Hurricanes game had even the remotest relevance, but a loss is still a loss.
I’m going to predict low-scoring nailbiter, with the Crusaders narrowly prevailing. Their forward pack is just such a juggernaut and rattling on points, or even stringing phases together, isn’t easy on the heavy AMI Stadium.
LIONS V SHARKS
Tempting to put in the ‘who cares?’ basket.
Whatever the Lions do this year will be tainted by the fact they’re yet to face a New Zealand foe this season. A home finals run is a huge advantage to last year’s beaten finalists, but we all know it’s been artificially won.
STORMERS V CHIEFS
Very familiar ground for the Chiefs, who went to Cape Town this time last year and thrashed the hosts 60-21 in a quarterfinal. On that occasion it was the Stormers’ first exposure to a New Zealand team for the season.
Since then they’ve been back to Newlands and lost 34-26 in one of the more open and frenetic matches of this season.
Any team with Brodie Retallick in it starts most games favourites, but this will be a challenge. It might be the Damian McKenzie’s irresistible recent form can tip the balance in the Chiefs’ favour. All Blacks vice-captain Ben Smith says the moment he was cleared of a third concussion this year was a ‘‘big relief’’.
The 31-year-old will play for the first time in almost a month on Saturday night, when he cocaptains the Highlanders against the Crusaders in their Super Rugby quarterfinal in Christchurch.
Smith left the first test match against the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park after taking a knock to the head. He was initially diagnosed with a third concussion since February, only to later find out it was an inner-ear problem.
‘‘I think the most frustrating thing was the timing of it . . . obviously earlier on in the year I did have a couple of concussions,’’ Smith told Stuff.
‘‘But for the latest one to be ruled out as concussion and instead an ear problem was a big relief. Now I’m just looking forward to getting out there with the team and playing some rugby.’’
Smith being ruled out of the test series with what was thought to be his sixth concussion in the past five years sparked speculation he might opt to retire.
But he didn’t believe his career was done and dusted – only that he wasn’t convinced he would feature again for the Highlanders this year.
‘‘If I’m honest, there probably was a stage I was wondering what was going on,’’ Smith, who has been putting in the hard yards to ensure his fitness remained up to scratch, said.
‘‘I’ve just been trying to get as much conditioning in as I can. Just trying to make sure that while I haven’t been playing rugby, I’ve been getting my body right and ready for when there is a chance, which is this Saturday.’’
Family time was also on the agenda, something he will get plenty more of if his rumoured sabbatical is confirmed.
The topic was off-limits to media on Thursday, but Smith is expected to activate the sabbatical clause in his contract after the Bledisloe Cup test match in Dunedin on August 26.
Details won’t be confirmed until after the Highlanders’ season ends, but Smith stands to miss the final eight test matches this year.
Smith’s return to the Highlanders coincides with fellow All Black and halfback Aaron Smith returning from a week off for Saturday’s sudden-death South Island derby.
The Highlanders are all but fully healthy for the match, with only wing Patrick Osborne, who returned from test duty in Fiji on Tuesday nursing an ankle injury, not considered for selection.
Coach Tony Brown has opted to start Rob Thompson at second-five eighth, meaning utility Richard Buckman will start on the leftwing, as he did the last time the Highlanders played the Crusaders in the Garden City.
Brown has only named two backs – pivot Marty Banks and halfback Kayne Hammington – on the pine as the Highlanders prepare to battle the Crusaders’ All Black laden pack,
‘‘It’s something we’ve used in the past quite successfully,’’ Brown said. ‘‘We just feel like we need extra fire power up front.’’