Semi-final Super Rugby Pacific: Blues against Brumbies
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
When: Saturday 11 June, 7.05 pm
Live coverage: Sky Sport 1, live updates on Stuff
The Blues have made some serious shifts in the nearly four years that Leon MacDonald and Tom Coventry have crumbled underperforming the building of New Zealand’s most enigmatic Super Rugby franchise.
They are no longer the easybeats and almost men of this southern hemisphere professional rugby league; they are now the standard setters, the models of consistency and the side that everyone is chasing in this first edition of Super Rugby Pacific.
The worm has turned. From the outhouse to the penthouse, the Blues have finally shed their cloak of ineptitude to become the franchise they always thought they were. They started life with a swagger, making three consecutive Grand Finals from 1996-98 and winning the first two crowns, but have since spent much of the time in a decidedly shaky wobble, with only one final (the 2003 triumph over the Crusaders) and a pair of losing semifinals (’07 and ’11).
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On Saturday night at Eden Park, in the second of the Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals against the Brumbies (7.05pm kick-off), those seismic changes in attitude, culture, accountability and full rugby performance may need to be exposed. A brutal test is sure to come and there will be nearly 30,000 soon-to-be Auks sitting in the stands hoping their heroes don’t blink now.
These Blues are taking a ride. They haven’t lost since round 1 in Dunedin, when they were picked 33-32 by the Hurricanes in a miraculous finish. Since then, they have racked up a franchise record of 14 consecutive wins and battled their way out of a succession of tight spots to win to a semi-final at home in which they are highly favored to be victorious.
Expensive red card as Blues Highlanders charge.
Like everyone else, they’re a bit cranked up, without skipper Dalton Papalii (appendicitis) and Caleb Clarke (hamstring) from their top lineup. Papalii’s speed controversy, which came to light on the night of the race, may have also been a distraction they didn’t need.
But they have depth that their rivals would envy, a resiliency that should ignore the noise from outside, and quality galore throughout their lineup, from the quartet of All Blacks props sharing the front row grunt, a loose trio that X-factor and foot speed, the best No. 10 in the business, and a backline strike force, led by Rieko Ioane, who is terrifying in his strength.
Winning has become a habit in Blues land, but the last time we came out against the Brumbies – a 21-19 win in Canberra on 21 May – was one that was only deadly when Beauden Barrett’s dropped goal brought home the Kiwis.
That night, the Brumbies scraped their way out of a heavy possession disadvantage, and a series of penalties and cards, to beat the visitors by three tries to two. The Blues need to remember that there will be an equally tough challenge on Saturday from a side that knows its strengths and plays it beautifully.
Striker coach Coventry gave some insight into his side’s mentality this week: “We just had a neat team meeting and some of the guys got up and talked about their love for the game, of growing up with the ball and reminding ourselves how important this game is. for us and our families, it was very well done.”
Some of the greats of yesteryear have also brought in their five cents in the past month. “We are never short of our old boys. They are all pretty proud of what the club has achieved so far, and we’re just trying to leverage the strength they bring to a young group,” added Coventry.
They may need it. That big Brumbies peloton, with Rob Valentini back on the loose, will be questioning the breakdown, on set and especially in the driving maul with the line in sight. The Blues know exactly what comes from a side that scored nine tries in ’22 from lineout drive.
“We’re working pretty hard on it,” said Coventry, pointing to a patch of chewed-up grass where his players do their mauling. “They are really good there… the Crusaders and Brumbies are probably the top two teams in the driving maul. First of all, you have to be disciplined so that they can’t access the 22, and if they do… [get there]you have to be able to handle it well.”
The Blues will respect the Brumbies and their strengths. But they will know that if they play their game, tempo, width and ball in hand, the visitors will have their own containment issues. The expected rain could be a complicating factor, and Coventry warns that when it does come, his men “need to cut things down a bit and be smart about our tactics”.
The old Blues would carry on regardless of the circumstances and play their game. These people have learned to cut their clothes, measure their prospects and do the smart thing. Now is not the time to fall back.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett (capt), Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luke Romano, James Tucker, Sam Nock, Tamati Tua, Zarn Sullivan.
brumbies: Tom Banks, Tom Wright, Ollie Sapsford, Irae Simone, Andy Muirhead, Noah Lolesio, Nic White; Rob Valetini, Pete Samu, Tom Hooper, Cadeyrn Neville, Darcy Swain, Allan Alaalatoa (capt), Folau Fainga’a, James Slipper. Reservations: Lachlan Lonergan, Scott Sio, Sefo Kautai, Nick Frost, Luke Reimer, Jahrome Brown, Ryan Lonergan, Hudson Creighton.
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