Contenders or pretenders: Why the Blues aren't entitled to anything other than hype ahead of Chiefs clash
The Blues aren’t entitled to anything other than hype at this stage. The reality is their own ill-discipline must be rooted out immediately or they’ll quickly slide off the ship.
For a team that is so often accused of being overhyped, a second straight defeat in the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa could see those accusations return to the fold, and rightly so too.
The Blues, they say, are the story of this all-Kiwi competition right now. Journalists, needing desperately to talk about anything other than a pending fifth consecutive title-win for the Crusaders, say that Auckland is the place to be because there is something genuinely exciting about the prospects for a franchise that is finally finding its groove.
That is until ill-discipline entered the fray.
Needless penalties and suspect decision-making by players who should know better might be issues that Blues coach Leon MacDonald thinks is an easy fix, but the 43-year old might not look further than his very opponents this weekend to get a better understanding of how difficult that assumption can be in reality.
Similar claims were made by Warren Gatland as he coached the Chiefs to an 0-9 run. Ill-discipline were again key factors in the two losses to start the 2021 campaign under Clayton McMillan which really set the Waikato-based franchise staring down the barrel.
The effects are simple and impactful. Discipline, or the lack thereof, can infect a side like the plague and be very difficult to recover from. Its fixes are not found in a simpler rugby rulebook or in the referees, but in the efforts of the players.
If a team is ill-disciplined for long enough, they’ll soon become a target.
It doesn’t matter if the Blues had been relatively good in the penalties department prior to the Crusaders loss. It doesn’t matter how competitive they were at scrum time or at set piece.
What fans saw in the Eden Park encounter was needless penalty after needless penalty, compounded and punished further by flagrant idiocy in the case of Kurt Eklund’s wrestling move on Sevu Reece and a dangerous cleanout by Ofa Tu’ungafasi who has been punished for similar actions in the past.
“There is the Crusaders and the Blues then everyone else,” a colleague in rugby media told me this week in a comment that reflects the general feeling in Super Rugby Aotearoa right now.
But the Blues must be wary that they don’t slide down into the sub-category conversation that the remaining three franchises find themselves in currently.
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A loss to the Chiefs, a side that has no business beating the Blues if you go on recent history, could be the igniter that starts such a slide.
If that were to happen it would look disastrous, painting the picture of a Blues team that penalised its way to being blown off the scoreboard in perhaps the most important game of recent memory followed by a loss to a team that they should beat with ease.
The Crusaders are the only side in Super Rugby Aotearoa that the Blues should be described as potential underdogs when matched up against.
In terms of the rest? When you compare the raw ability of the backline, of which all its main names are fit and playing well, and the genuine strength of the forward pack which bolsters four big men of starting All Blacks caliber, there is simply no comparison to what the others have in their stocks.
So far, the Blues have managed to escape the injury plague (with a couple of exceptions) to keep their best players on the park. The plague they really need to avoid is becoming a side that creates its own pressure by way of ill-disciple, something that sadly for them, was on full display in the last outing.
Here’s what MacDonald had to say of the ill-discipline against the Crusaders: “We’ve been really good with our discipline up until now. That was the first game where we were on the wrong side of the ledger with discipline but overall there is a lot of areas in the game that we are competing well in”.
The key word in that statement being competing. The Blues are competing extremely well and, indeed, have rightly performed to an exceptional level in recent times. Encounters where the Blues have not only competed, but won definitively, could only be dreamed of amongst fans of the franchise not to long ago.
It’s clear that MacDonald is the right man to coach this team back to the promised land of the late 90s and early 2000s, now it’s up to his players to prove they buy into the same vision by not allowing themselves to come into another game prepared to give away penalties and hope that the results against the very best still go their way because all other areas of their game are solid enough.
That type of attitude will net more losses than wins, even against sides that few would expect.
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