The phony war of pre-season is over for the Blues but they showed enough during their victories over the Chiefs and Hurricanes in the blazing heat of Waihi and Takapuna that they may finally make an impact this season and their major weapons may be in their loose forward mix.
As the crowd at Onewa Domain last Friday attempted to find respite from the sun, young men such as Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Tony Lamborn, Blake Gibson and Dalton Papalii set about raising the temperatures further for the Hurricanes with physical performances that even watching legends Eric Rush, Olo Brown and Sean Fitzpatrick would have been impressed by.
It is an area of unrivalled depth for the Blues and may provide Leon MacDonald with his toughest selection decisions this week as he prepares for a round one match against the Chiefs at Eden Park on Friday which will give a much clearer indication of where his team is at.
Two pre-season matches before a late January competition kick-off is not ideal preparation – previously three matches were the norm for most sides – but the Blues may enjoy a slight advantage here as the Chiefs had only an inter-squad trial behind closed doors as their second match.
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Robinson, the flame-haired 25-year-old who enjoyed an excellent debut Super Rugby season last year, was particularly effective with his front-on defence as the Hurricanes chased the game before losing 29-28.
He clearly has an appetite for hard work and connecting with either shoulder. He was on Steve Hansen’s radar last year and was an outside shot for a World Cup place before requiring knee surgery in June and Ian Foster is likely to be interested in his first year as All Blacks head coach.
Robinson’s connection with Ioane, Gibson and Papalii in particular will be key for the Blues this year as all four are capable of winning turnovers and, while it was “just” a pre-season match last Friday, MacDonald’s men showed far greater patience on attack than last year and should they be as clinical against the Chiefs, a side with a similarly good loose forward trio, the result may be close.
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At 1.98m, Robinson also has the ability to play lock and that’s where he may find himself in the second half as Patrick Tuipulotu, the Blues’ skipper under All Black playing restrictions, is unlikely to play beyond the game’s three-quarter mark.
The clash between the opposing team’s loose forwards will add an intriguing twist to Warren Gatland’s return to Eden Park.
The Chiefs have power and precision among their loose forwards – particular in skipper Sam Cane and Pita Gus Sowakula. All Black Luke Jacobson, sent home from the World Cup without playing due to concussion, is likely to be available from round two or three. Mitchell Brown and Mitch Karpik are also capable players.
Beauden Barrett is undoubtedly a huge signing for the @BluesRugbyTeam, but there are a number of other playmakers in the side that will need to step up before Barrett arrives late in the @SuperRugby season, writes @TomVinicombe.https://t.co/VxCLFO2vzp#SuperRugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 5, 2020
Lamborn, 28, a Hawke’s Bay player who represented the United States at the recent World Cup, adds a different element to the Blues’ loose forward mix. He is clearly shorter in terms of stature compared with the rest but there’s no doubting his toughness.
Lamborn suffered a cut head against the Hurricanes on Friday and blood covered the previously white bandage wrapped around it, but he was keen to continue and did so after halftime.
“That’s why we like Tony and that’s why he’s with us,” MacDonald said. He’s pretty rugged and a keen competitor. He’s a little different to Blake and Dalton – he offers something different – but he plays with a lot of heart.”
Catch up on all the highlights from the Round 3 Top League fixture between the Kobelco Steelers and Suntory Sungoliath:
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