The Blues came back to Earth with a close 33-29 loss over rivals the Chiefs, extending an 8-year dry spell against their southern neighbours. The loss ended a four-match winning streak for the rising Blues, who are improving under the guidance of first-year head coach Leon MacDonald.
So, what has MacDonald done since taking over and what do they need to do to become a contender again?
The ex-Tasman head coach has brought his system with him, and after a cautious start, the Blues are now playing with the shape that he used with the Makos.
The Blues are now running an ‘unbalanced’ 1-3-2-1-1 pattern as their main phase play structure. This may sound confusing but the key element is the middle ‘3-2’ pod configuration, which is visible below.
Early against the Chiefs, we see the Blues shape falling into place rather accurately.
The first three-man pod is setting up for a carry with Otere Black (10) in the back seat, and for the next phase, a central two-man pod with Ma’a Nonu (12) out the back.
On this occasion, two Blues loose forwards, Tom Robinson (6) and Dalton Papali’i (7) flank the right edge either side of Caleb Clarke (14). Often this will just be one, and it is common to see No. 8 Akira Ioane where Robinson is.
After the first pod carries, a large open side play has been set-up for the Blues to attack with width on the second phase the same way, with Otere Black sliding over to play first receiver.
On this occasion, the Blues use a little screen pass play from the two-man pod, first hitting the closest forward Patrick Tuipulotu who plays a pullback pass to Nonu (12) coming around the edge before using hands to the sideline.
In just two phases the Blues have moved from one side to the other, getting far more players involved and using a higher number of passes to do so.
However, just a few minutes later and still within the first 10 minutes of the match, the Blues struggle to hold their shape effectively. This is the Blues after the first pod carry, setting up for the same second-phase open side shift.
Nonu (12) and Black (10) trade places in a first receiver change-up, but the two-man pod set up outside of Nonu is sloppy.
Tuipulotu is frontrunning him, the second forward, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, is late into position, and both locks fail to time their run, ending up in front of Nonu by the time he catches the ball.
They aren’t able to offer options on this phase or even the look of being involved, making it easy for the defence to slide once Black receives the ball.
The Blues are still able to spread to the edge through the hands by playing with more depth and make easy metres downfield once the ball reaches the far side, so the poor setup has no real impact in this exit play.
Black’s depth is also far too deep to challenge the line in any capacity, but since the Blues can still achieve gain line if they get the ball wide quickly, also isn’t a major problem on this occasion.
The problem is this lack of clinical execution surfaces when the Blues need to be accurate in their shape in other parts of the field, a sign that poor habits pop up everywhere.
As Matt Duffie explained recently with brutal honesty with Stuff, the recent run of improved results were a result of “no individual bull****” and no “falling out of our shape when fatigued”.
Against the Chiefs, the fatigue set in again and despite having an astounding 63% possession, the Blues failed to outscore the Chiefs.
Early in the second half, Karl Tu’inukuafe (1) takes a carry, but his support options on either side aren’t really there, too slow to react and miss an opportunity for a tip pass on the outside.
Tu’inukuafe engages two defenders and takes them to the ground, and the lane outside for a potential tip pass prior to contact is visible.
When Tuipulotu gets his timing right, the skilled ball-playing of Tu’inukuafe can set him free, as illustrated on the stroke of halftime when some great forward interplay opened up the Chiefs and ultimately led to a try to Melani Nanai. The trouble is the consistency at which this happens.
After this opportunity is missed, the two ‘latchers’ reach the breakdown late and Parsons makes a bad clean and goes off his feet unnecessarily.
Later in the game, he is crucially penalised for doing the same thing while the Blues have the ball and the turnover of possession leads to a crucial Chiefs try to extend the lead by two scores.
The Blues play back to the short side and make in-roads, setting up the shape again to return to the open side with front-foot ball.
The Blues have failed to setup the first pod effectively, losing all resemblance of structure. The halfback feeds Black directly while the half-completed pod switches off for a rest once Black receives the ball.
Tuipulotu is not in a position to be a tip runner outside of Parsons, but tries to make up for it by offering a late running option for Black out of the second level.
He is able to provide a strong carry, but a man from the next two-man pod has to break ranks to offer cleaning support with neither Parsons or Tu’inukuafe available. The Blues have begun operating outside the instructed manual and it falls apart quickly.
Tuipulotu tries to throw a one-hand offload around the corner and loses the ball. The Chiefs regain possession and clear their lines through Marty McKenzie, and the Blues lose an opportunity deep on attack inside the 22.
Just as the Blues were rolling and gaining momentum, the pack falls out of shape and Tuipulotu tries to do something extra after failing to do his initial job.
Despite going off-script, had the Blues re-cycled this ball their backs would still be in a promising position to capitalise.
This is all too familiar from the Blues tight five who frequently quit on plays, take phases off to rest, fail to get the timing or positioning right or just make critical errors, unable to play at the game speed required to open up space for the backs in New Zealand derbies.
Re-building the pack
Macdonald’s system needs fit, mobile forwards with a certain level of ball-playing ability. Some of the Blues tight five fill some of the criteria but lack in others, and many constantly hurt the team with poor execution and work rate.
They have re-signed some elder statesmen like Parsons and Tuipulotu at a time where, respectfully, they should be looking to replace them. World-class locks and hookers don’t grow on trees but this is one area where, if the Blues got recruitment right in the next two years, their team could really lift to the next level with improved accuracy in support lines and cleaning in phase play.
Parsons is throwing at 83.3% success rate for the Blues lineout, similar to Dane Coles at the Hurricanes (83.6%) which has well-documented set-piece troubles, but below that of Liam Coltman 86.2%, Nathan Harris 87.5%, and the Crusaders pair of Andrew Makalio 90.2% and Ben Funnel 93.6%.
Lineout success requires more input than just the thrower, but it’s clear the Blues set-piece isn’t firing at the rate required by a genuine contender (90%+), and the whole tight five has a large say in that through two jumping options and the lifters.
They have a serviceable tight five unit full of size and power, but they don’t provide an elite level of set-piece execution and hurt the team’s attacking prowess within ball-in-hand in a system that promotes ball movement and less carrying. The case for continued rejuvenation couldn’t be clearer.
The emergence of Tom Robinson has uncovered a gem prospect, as has been the addition of St Kents and New Zealand age grade rep Dalton Papalii, who bring energy and high effort around the park and will hopefully develop into sharpened readers of the game. The loose forward depth is becoming a real asset and can be something the team builds around in the next few years.
The ability of Akira Ioane is well known, but the Blues will have succession planning issues to work around – the son of local legend Michael Jones, Niko Jones, is a No. 8 who will be Super Rugby-ready by age 20 or 21. If Akira is still around, which is likely, Jones will need to play seven or six and compete with Papalii, Robinson, and Gibson or be used as a super-sub bench utility for impact.
There is going to a talent jam in the stacked loose forward unit while the real problem exists up front.
Finding an All Black-quality hooker should be high on the Blues priority. Wellington signed last year’s New Zealand schoolboy Tyrone Thompson out of Napier, and under-20 prospect Kianu Kereru-Symes out of Hawke’s Bay also covers prop.
Similarly, Codie Taylor and Andrew Makalio present roadblocks for Shilo Klien and already proven Super Rugby player Ben Funnel to assume regular starting duties with the Crusaders. They have to get active in this space to find a dynamic number 2, in the absence of a local prospect regarded as a national prospect in his age group, to push and learn from the 32-year-old Parsons in his final chapter with the team.
The challenge for the tight five re-committing and extending their time at the Blues is to find another level of accuracy, fitness and precision to prove they can take the side further towards championship-level play.
The team has improved to become competitive in the New Zealand conference, but in order to lead the team back to the promised land, they have to find a level of accuracy that makes this current level of play unacceptable, which, in all reality, isn’t for a team with championship aspirations.
They have come some way this far, but there is a way to go yet and the back half in the season will show whether it may take an investment in the next generation of the Blues tight five to do so. This is isn’t the only improvement area for the Blues, but you need to be able to lay a solid platform first, and that means putting the men up front under the spotlight.
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