'A guy like that is only going to benefit the Blues': The regular starters that have helped turn the Blues' season around
With just one round of regular season games remaining in 2021, the Blues currently find themselves atop the tree in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, having not yet lost a game and registering a near-perfect 19 points from a possible 20.
After a difficult second season in Super Rugby Aotearoa under head coach Leon MacDonald, the ‘sleeping giant’ that is the Auckland-based franchise looks to have well and truly woken up, producing some dominant performances in the Trans-Tasman competition and scoring thirty-plus points in every game thus far.
The excellent form the Blues have enjoyed in this competition has been built largely on the rock-solid foundation that is their forward pack. Although the Blues are no strangers to talent, this time around the puzzle pieces seem to have finally fallen into place, as MacDonald has managed a forwards squad containing eight All Blacks extremely well, rotating where necessary but crucially allowing for consistency to be built up through regular appearances.
The dominance and ruthlessness of the Blues upfront, as well as the dynamism the ball-playing ability of their forwards has afforded them, has set the platform for a youthful and exciting backline to flourish. In short, things seem to be clicking for the Blues at just the right time and given their current position, one more bonus point victory will all but guarantee a home final – a first since 2003.
There is understandably plenty to get Blues fans excited therefore, and speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod this week ex-Blues centurion James Parsons identified two players who although not yet international stars, have nonetheless been key contributors to the Blues’ successes. Crucially, in two positions in which the Blues are far from lacking in depth, lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and halfback Finlay Christie have shone in their own respective ways.
Commenting on the 28-year-old Cowley-Tuioti, Parsons identified the lock’s work rate as key to the Blues’ successful game plan.
“It’s his selfless decisions to create opportunities for others that was the biggest thing that I liked,” remarked Parsons of Cowley-Tuioti’s contribution to the Blues’ 24-31 victory over the Reds in Brisbane.
The build-up to Mark Telea’s try was one instance in which Cowley-Tuioti proved crucial.
“The line that he runs off Patrick Tuipulotu, Tuipulotu gives that ball out the back to Mark but Cowley-Tuioti’s line, a hard line that commits the Queensland defender to rush in, creates that space to open up for Mark as the pivot to run through that space and score… It’s his discipline to do his role to create space for someone else.”
Similarly, Parsons highlighted Cowley-Tuioti’s good work in the lead up to Dalton Papalii’s try from short range.
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“Gerard cleans that last ruck and he takes two Queensland defenders in and around the corner [in doing so]. Then the other Reds players have to come right around, they don’t do it in time and then Dalton obviously picks and scores.”
It is this selflessness that has proved so impressive throughout the competition, with Parsons believing that Cowley-Tuioti largely epitomizes the team cohesion that the Blues have built, the behind-the-scenes ethos whereby no one player is solely relied upon. From that base of selflessness upfront come the “massive plays” that lead to points and victories.
Bryn Hall, a teammate of Cowley-Tuitoi’s at North Harbour also commended the lock’s performance in a hard-fought victory in Brisbane. “I thought he… was immense defensively,” said Hall. “Gerard topped the tackle count with twenty… and really had that physicality, bringing in that defensive effort for the Blues, which I think is needed in those kinds of big games.”
A player much like Cowley-Tuitoi who has been consistently excellent in his four back-to-back starts in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, has been halfback Finlay Christie. The Scottish-born Christie has fought his way to the top of the pecking order out of a talented trio of Blues halfbacks and has truly been making good MacDonald’s faith in him, displaying an ever-increasing level of game management, kicking ability and running game.
“His box-kick game is improving,” said Parsons of the 26-year-old. “I feel like now he’s got his match fitness, his whole game he’s stringing together is really starting to gel with the forwards but also the backs, and it’s just complimenting that ability to have that ball-up mindset…there just seems to be a good synergy building now there’s that consistency in that selection at nine.” As Hall was quick to comment, a lot of that growing confidence in Christie might well be due to the successes with Tasman Christie has enjoyed at provincial level.
“The efficiency of the Blues when they were inside the 22 and the control that Finlay Christie had with the forwards running off him…is really efficient,” said Hall. “When your forwards are on the go-forward and giving you really good set piece ball or just good phase play ball, then the ability to be able to play off that is really easy to do…but he gets opposition out playing a little bit, trying to entice the hard defence… and then you’ve got runners outside him and they go through.”
“His game management understanding has been really good,” commented Hall. “Moving forward especially if they do play in the final, having a guy like that who understands the situations of game management when it comes to those games is only going to benefit the Blues.”
The Blues will certainly hope Christie and Cowley-Tuitoi are on top form once again as they look to secure their spot in the Trans-Tasman final in a home clash with the Western Force this Saturday.
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