Traveling by bus down to Eden Park, the recognizable Blues Rugby team fans on board seemed to be expectant. They were hopeful, after the fresh changes made to the Auckland franchise that they might challenge in 2019. But, they ended up seeing an all too familiar loss in a high competitive, New Zealand local derby game.
Facing the Crusaders in the opening clash; the defending Champions, was the most difficult beginning of all. So if the outcome was a loss, from all external angles, that was probably to be expected. The fight shown by the Blues rugby team was something surprising, and it pushed the visitors hard – until a self inflicted blow took away the chances of a desperately wanted win.
Penalty tries can be cruel. From any position, the judgement is subjective. Referee Nick Briant made the call twice, and the local crowd howled with disapproval. Each time, he awarded the Crusaders a full compliment of seven points, so banking 14 points gave the visitors the lead late in the game.
By the time the final whistle blew, the Blues had attempted to chase down their opponents. They made the Crusaders work hard, and both coaches at the end of the game called it a good, old fashioned fixture to kick-off the new season.
Fans left with an idea that this is in fact a ‘fresh start’ yet, the familiar Blues rugby loss does not end the 20-game losing streak in local derby matches.
Blues 22 – Tries: Akira Ioane, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Augustine Pulu; Penalty: Otere Black; Conversions: Black, Harry Plummer.
Crusaders 24 – Tries: Manasa Mataele (2), penalty tries (2)
From here, the Blues must travel directly to South Africa for their next clash. Post-game, new head coach Leon MacDonald told Last Word on Rugby “It’s important we back up tonight’s performance again next week otherwise it will be disappointing.”
His men did prove that they have the fight in them. Falling to the Crusaders by two points was closer than predictions made. Scoring four tries proves that they can be organized – their final try to Augustin Pulu was a well constructed play, from a lineout. Not that they always succeeded in set plays.
Super Rugby round one is where teams set down platforms. Wins and losses count, but standards are also set. Observing the home team, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson commented “They were brutal at the breakdown. Tom Coventry’s done a great job, they’re cleaning around the corners, a metre beside the ball you’re gone and cleaned out so they’re very Chiefs-like.
“That’s the detail I was talking about that they bring so they were very brutal and that shows the extra edge they’ve got,” he said. And that was reinforced by MacDonald, who categorized this match as ‘big battle with plenty of pressure applied’ by both teams.
“If you’re a purist and you enjoy a really good arm-wrestle, it was definitely that.”
Several moments turned the tide in this match. With highlights being Braydon Ennor at center for the Crusaders, proving the Canterbury flyer has a bright future. And Akira Ioane, who ‘at times’ was so potent, he was difficult to hold down. The failure of this Blues rugby loss, was that they were too exhausted by the 80th minute to show that match finishing class, that Champion teams present.
‘Fresh Start’ intended: familiar Blues Rugby loss Presented
“It’s a new season, a fresh start for all of us. We can take a lot of positives, because we broke the defending champions, we put them under serious pressure. We just got to understand what it was that allowed us to do that – and do it more often”.
That was the summary by Leon MacDonald. He was right as well.
Over the course of 80 minutes, many factors were reinforced and negated. The prospects of the Blues rugby team of 2019 had been broadcast widely – a team who would come together under the new direction of Leon MacDonald.
His ascension above Tana Umaga, and the inclusion of North Harbour coach Tom Coventry, was celebrated as a potent mix. After 80 minutes, those elements did not entirely present fans with victory but, it entirely underlined many fine points.
The ‘detail’ which Scott Robertson pointed too, are positives to work on. Although, psychologically, flying to South Africa, the team must now show self belief to at least return with one victory from two tough match-ups; Sharks and Jaguares.
“Recovery is critical. It’s important that we back tonight’s performance, I’d be disappointed if we don’t.” They have a ‘tough start’ to the season, and MacDonald said “I earmarked two wins out of three as a nice little target, so it means we’re gonna have to win both on the road now. We’re going to have to get everything right this week, and the following week.
“So the challenge is ahead of us”.
For many rugby fans, the disillusionment of the Blues is frustrating. Promises, but with less than satisfactory results. So demonstrating promise at the beginning of the year is one thing. Solidifying that intent, and then benefiting from victories at home and away are sometimes, the only true register of success.
Blues v Crusaders standouts
Akira Ioane – if ever one player was asked to ‘show up’ then it is the older Ioane. And even while it took 41 minutes, he had the crowded cheering in delight when he finished a fine Blues fourish. The only problem is his energy, attention to detail and the frustration he shows; he is a big target, and should not be goaded into taking the bait.
Tom Robinson – the young Northland flanker was both frenetic, and hard nosed. His long locks made him easy to recognize, and he was good in the rucks and mauls, often carrying over the advantage line. The only blemish was his poor body position in a Crusaders rolling maul, which saw he sent to the sin bin for cynical play.
Manasa Matele – the flying winger is a perfect finisher. In the mode of many Pacific Island players who have graced the ‘red and black’ jersey, he is often in the perfect place to receive the long pass – and finish the task. Note; he was involved in some controversy, seeming to knock the ball back in a late penalty, but it was not a clear infringement, and was not at the Yellow Car threshold.
Matt Todd – in his work around the field, Todd continues to be efficient and the equal of Sam Cane. On occasion, his handling of the ball was superb – his handling of the referee was a little less so impressive. New to the role, he was rattled by the pressures of captaincy, and was fortunate not to have the glare of cameras on him; if the final penalty kick by Harry Plummer was on target.
Scott Barrett – as described by Razor Robertson, “he’s got a big motor” in reference to immediately reaching his high standards, after zero preseason game time.
Jonathon Ruru – the Blues starting halfback proved that he has the general play to match Pulu. His long reach is a benefit, and if he can build a combination with Otere Black, the Blues duo could build into a lethal 9-10 pairing.
Too early to judge several key drivers in Super Rugby
Only being Round One, it is hard to determine the form of many players. Both Otere Black and Richie Mo’unga under performed. Each will need to show more command in their next outing, if they are to become drivers of their respective team’s fortunes.
Ma’a Nonu had some bright sparks of play; big on defence at times, a deft pass and the ability to get over the advantage line. Over the course of the year, his progress will be closely monitored, his profile being a bonus and also a target for the opposition. If he can reproduce the form of 2015, Blues fans and fans of NZ rugby will begin to call for higher honours – that call is far from the truth yet, after only one game in 2019.
The Blues next play the Sharks in Durban, while the Crusaders host the Hurricanes in Christchurch.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images