Rugby’s first tentative steps towards next month’s anticipated return brings several new norms but also the realisation from a performance perspective that what worked before should eventually work again.
That’s the hope for the Blues, anyway. Regressing after finally turning the corner this season is not an option.
Training in smaller bubbles; preparing for same-day return flights to matches and playing in large venues with no crowds all require significant adjustment as New Zealand’s five franchises returned to work this week.
Despite the many varied challenges, Blues hooker James Parsons explained his new-found appreciation for the game.
“You don’t know how good something is until it’s taken away from you,” Parsons enthused.
The compressed four-week window before Super Rugby Aotearoa starts puts the focus squarely on conditioning. In this regard, star recruit Beauden Barrett immediately set the bar with his club record 4 minute 12 second Bronco test that turned heads around the globe on Monday.
“To do a PB shows he’s all in,” Parsons said. “I can’t speak on behalf of the other boys but what it said to me is he’s sent a real message that he’s here to do the business.
“Look, it might not be an outcome straight away but he’s given himself the best possible chance to perform in a Blues jersey and that’s what I as an individual, a fan, player I really appreciate so he’s certainly got my respect for doing that on day one.”
Barrett beat his previous best by seven seconds and he was no doubt inspired after being pushed all the way by Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot but that’s a helluva effort. You’ve got to give a bit of credit to Jonathan Ruru to be honest. He did 4.13 last time so 4.12 is impressive but we were blown away when Jono did that last time. Beauden did beat the record, but Jono got left behind there a little bit.”
Two months away from the team evoked fears many players would struggle to maintain fitness standards. Training alone will never produce the same results as intensely competitive professional environments but, on the whole, Blues forwards coach Tom Coventry appears satisfied by the state of the squad.
The break allowed props Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman to recover from calf injuries while the Blues have welcomed wing Caleb Clarke from New Zealand sevens duty and fellow finisher Tanielu Tele’a who was troubled by a shoulder complaint.
With a near fully fit squad, by the time the Blues host the Hurricanes at Eden Park on June 14 competition for starting spots will be fierce.
For now, the most pressing challenge is delicately progressing contact without risking injuries, and regaining lost muscle mass in such a short space of time.
“That’s probably the biggest concern,” Coventry said. “The conscientious ones have been getting stuck into the weights in their garages and backyards. There’s been a little bit of a drop off in that [muscle] area but I don’t think it’ll take us too long to get them back into shape with the weights. In four weeks we should be back to where we finished.
“We relied heavily on what the boys have done over the course of the lockdown. They’ve had a lot of autonomy to get the training done by themselves. You’d think being away from the environment that would be a disastrous thing but they’ve actually been really good and knuckled down. They’ve come back into the club really well-conditioned.”
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Coventry hopes to somehow minimise the strange element of playing behind closed doors.
“It will be very unusual. I think they’ll put us in the big grounds because it will be easier to make it secure and manage.
“We rely heavily on our crowd and at times they get you through the tight matches so it’s certainly going to be a level playing field. I’m hoping we can adapt quickly to that and put performances on the board regardless.
“We’re very conscious that we need to be on top of this and crystal clear about what we’re doing because we don’t want to stuff this up. It is important for us and for the country and sport. We’re role models for others that come after us. ”
Parsons and the Blues senior leaders have quickly reinforced standards and the need to regain the training edge that propelled the team to second in the New Zealand conference with five wins and two losses prior to lockdown.
To a large degree that momentum has been lost, but in their second year under head coach Leon MacDonald the Blues now have a clear blueprint and understanding of the way they want to play.
Barrett’s numbers suggest they will, in fact, be an even stronger unit.
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