Blues v Highlanders Derby Match a Scrappy Affair

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Super Rugby Rd 3 - Blues v Highlanders
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 11: Captain Elliot Dixon of the Highlanders during the round three Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Highlanders at Eden Park on March 11, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

The opening home game of the Blues season held plenty of opportunity. A good crowd arrived to witness one of the more popular fixtures of the Super Rugby calendar: the local derby. The Blues v Highlander match held plenty of attention–if only the quality of the game matched the occasion.

BLUES 12

Penalties: Ihaia West (3), Piers Francis.

HIGHLANDERS 16

Try: Malakai Fekitoa; Conversion: Lima Sopoaga; Penalties: Sopoaga (2) Marty Banks.

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For the purists, this was a colossal battle. Error ridden yes, and not a perfect exhibition but it was a tense encounter that went right down to the final play of the game. But for the modern rugby fan, educated on Super Rugby and the All Blacks, they would feel somewhat ‘let down’.

What the fans want, and what the teams deliver are not always congruent. Tonight, it was not ‘wall to wall’ action where the ball is thrown around with ridiculously great skill. And to take nothing away from the players efforts, this was an ordinary local derby match–if there is ever such a thing. And most who saw the game, will find the label ‘scrappy’ to be more than accurate.

Match Was an Poor Example, But Still a Tough Encounter

Positive use of the ball was the intent from the very start. It was the execution that foiled play for the majority of the game though. Malakai Fekitoa dropping the ball early with the line close, and a Lima Sopoaga cross-field kick was just a little too far. Fortuitously, those same men were able to score a try [Fekitoa] and convert that [Sopoaga], to gain an early Highlanders lead.

There were good examples from the home side too, where the Blues were able to quickly turn defense into attack. Good transition ball from most of the team but far too often it was not secure ball. The action switched between sides too easily, possession was lost far too often, with advantage lost and/or just given away.

Blues set-piece ball was tough to come by, so in one well executed play, North Harbour number eight Murphy Taramai showed great strength. He burst forward, shared with Augustine Pulu who lost the opportunity close. Fortunately, a penalty advantage was converted by Ihaia West. 3-10 after 24 mins, it may have seemed like we would see another high scoring match but the constant handling errors were continually interrupting play.

Crowd Watches Errors and Finds Entertainment in Other Ways

When the Blues used an effective maul, it saw them penetrate the ‘Landers 22 meter area. They earned a penalty again, but it was a telling point for two reasons: (1) they showed they could hold the ball; and (2) the Mexican wave began.

The game had lost it’s capture of some of the crowd on hand. The fans at home too would be frustrated, so may have voted with their remote control. But aside from that, the match was evenly balanced after 35 minutes. The Highlanders early advantage just holding–not a secure one though, with a constant stream of possession lost it was tit-for-tat play. Give and take rugby. And it was truly hard to watch.

As the ball was given from each side to the other often, some fumbling schoolboy skills were on show. Aaron Smith went for one cross-kick…that went between the posts. While he may in fact still have some ‘rust’ that might be funny to some if it wasn’t an important local derby clash. The Blues made one last attacking play, only to cough it up yet again.

Error ridden rugby, and not anywhere near the quality of last nights display [Chiefs v Hurricanes, which was played in the driving rain].

Halftime 6-10: a Chance for the Sides to Collect Their Thoughts

Both knew they played poorly. Each side would ask the same of the players–not enough precision from each. And those facts had to improve. The sides had already completed two rounds, so it wasn’t the opening night–so the coaching staff hoped for improvement once the whistle blew time-on.

Our assessment of balanced territory was fair [officially 48%-52%] but Highlanders time in opposition 22 meter area was only three minutes, the Blues only half that. Those few minutes could not sustain any attack, and directly involved in that ‘disability, Ihaia West was the first substitution of the second half. After just 51 minutes, Piers Francis was told ‘go and drive the Blues bus’. A good test from the Counties-Manukau first five, in his preferred position. Umaga agreed that Francis deserves the opportunities, even if West will feel let down.

Not much could describe the game by the three-quarter mark though, other than messy. Inconsistent, often a hit-and-miss game; and more from the Highlanders honestly. And that must have frustrated coach Tony Brown, how his side could not build any long passages–the ball was lost on 18 occasions (23 from the Blues).

Sitting in the opposite coaches box, Tana Umaga felt that same apathy. Undisciplined ball control, and his side had less reward than the visitors. What he wanted was a player to show their individual brilliance.

Few Examples of Substance, But Moala is Class Personified

In a huge 40 meter run from All Black George Moala, he fell agonizingly close to scoring. In fact, it fooled the Blues operations team so much, they were too early on the pyro. That might have been a metaphor for the game though–presumption before completion. Moala ran well, but like Rieko Ioane, he was hamstrung. Apart from Moala, the Blues were not prepared to do the ground work to profit.

In one of the more frustrating plays, Melani Nanai got the ball out wide from a gutsy Pulu charge. Such a big effort from the scrumhalf to break the Landers defense, for him to then see a wing ‘toss in’ a hail mary pass must have been upsetting. Those few chances were limited, so for most ‘holding the ball’ would have been the smarter option–but another example of where the Blues let themselves down. Too often ‘hoping’ rather than attempting anything precise.

With seconds left on the clock, and after Higlander Gareth Evens was sent to the bin for cynical play, it came down to a ‘all out’ barrage on the line. With all the crowd behind their men willing them on, unfairly that collective spirit was not quite enough. In any other fairytale, the Blues would have crossed, but not on this night. The quality was not there; from each side, but the Highlanders were gladly the one’s standing tallesr after a frustrating, and scrappy local derby game.

Blues v Highlanders Derby Match a Scrappy Affair

When asked about the result, coach Tony Brown was more ‘relieved’ than elated. He said that it was “great to get our first win for the season, but neither side deserved [played like they deserved] to win really.”

Tony Brown’s honest appraisal was “it was pretty ugly game”.

Brown identified that his team thought they could get reward from a kicking game in the first half. The players were asked to be sure they had ‘targeted the right people’. The same was said of the Blues lineout, which Brown saw a weakness in last week. The opposition stole five of the Blues lineouts, so throwing and calls would need to be on Umaga’s list Monday.

Short Turnaround to Crusaders Away Game Next Week

Just as Brown was ‘fairly pleased’ he would feel some sympathy for Umaga. Each now has a two loss/one win record, but Umaga has more to repair; as such. The local derby games are ‘pretty brutal’ and his group will have to sit down and reflect on the game. He says “it’s a short turnaround; which is probably not a bad thing. You can’t dwell on it too much” – they play the Crusaders at AMI Stadium, Friday March 17.

Frustrated by similar mistakes, he admitted that even with ‘plans in place’ his men just weren’t able to take care of the ball. Handling errors seems to be a constant worry, so it is a concern. When asked about his sides completion of several scoring opportunities, Umaga joked “completion rate; you mean the Warriors [rugby league]” but he admitted that “the opposition found ways to cut us off from our set phase, and we’ve got to find ways of getting our own ball.” As well as lineouts, a tight-head loss was another example where the Blues need to improve.

“It’s not as if we [Blues] didn’t work on it, the plans that are put in place we’ve just got to trust them, and look at the opportunities.”

In terms of injuries, the Highlanders walked away with two key injuries: Sopoaga and Waisake Naholo, both suffering suspected hamstring injuries. He is adamant that, considering this, the Highlanders might play Fletcher Smith at first five when they travel to play the Hurricanes in Wellington (next Saturday night).

So both sides will leave the Park with challenges ahead. That is the beauty, and the difficulty of the NZ local derby games like the Blues v Highlanders. When teams have a tough start to the competition [like the Highlanders] they just have to quickly turnaround, stand tall and look forward to the next challenge.

“Main photo credit”

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