Already, 2020 is shaping up as a record-breaking year for the Blues.
Sunday night’s win over the Hurricanes marked the first time that the Auckland-based side have won back-to-back matches against the men from the capital since 2013 – which was also the most-recent season that the Blues had recorded a win in Wellington until earlier this year.
They’re now sitting on a five-match winning streak – a feat they’ve not achieved since 2011.
Curiously enough, 2011 was also the last time that the Blues managed a win in Hamilton – although that could all change when the neighbouring franchises face off this coming weekend.
On that fateful night nine year ago, Jared Payne was the sole try-scorer for the visitors while Luke McAlister added 11 points from the boot. The Chiefs scored two tries of their own, through Liam Messam and Sona Taumalolo, but still fell short, 13-16.
None of the players that took the field on that soggy Hamilton evening are still playing professional football in New Zealand but Tana Umaga, who started the game in the Chiefs midfield, is now an assistant coach with the Blues.
That means that none of the current crop of Blues talent have ever tasted victory against the Chiefs in Hamilton. Beauden Barrett, of course, only just joined the Blues this season – but as the Hurricanes also hadn’t scored a win in Hamilton for over a decade until earlier this year, Barrett’s similarly never won a Super Rugby match in the Waikato region.
That’s unlikely to faze anyone in the Blues set-up, however – least of all, breakout star Hoskins Sotutu.
“Is that so? I didn’t even know that,” Sotutu said when asked about the Blues’ less than impressive record in Hamilton.
“We just try not to think about the past too much – we just focus on the game at hand. We’re a new team at the moment, trying to turn things around.”
Sotutu was just one part of an impressive loose forward combo that outgunned their Hurricanes counterparts over the weekend.
While Northland’s Tom Robinson was expertly employed in the lineouts and replacement openside Dalton Papalii hit the most breakdowns of any Blues forward, Sotutu was a menace across the park – eating metres, pilfering lineout ball and earning breakdown turnovers.
The breakdown, in particular, is one area where Sotutu is focussing on improving his performance.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) March 26, 2020
“I’ve been working on my jackle and stuff around the breakdown a lot,” he said. “The coaches have tried to help me out a lot around that. That’s sort of the area that I need to work on the most.
“Also, I’m working on trying to turn my defence into a bit of a turning point as well. Trying to be that enforcer dude as well – at both ends of the ball.”
Sotutu was just one piece of a Blues lineout that caused massive problems for the Hurricanes, with the Aucklanders picking off five of their opposition’s throws – and they’ll be trying to cause as much disruption when they come up against the Chiefs on Saturday.
The Chiefs had plenty of their own issues over the weekend, with precious lineout ball regularly spilled or overthrown, and the tall timber in the Blues pack will be hoping to feed of those sorts of mistakes – though they may have to do it without Robinson, who sustained a knee injury in the win over the Hurricanes.
Blake Gibson, who started in the 7 jersey, took a blow to the head and exited Sunday’s game after 30 minutes, which could also force changes for the Blues.
Injuries are hardly a surprise – players, coaches and pundits alike all predicted that there would be plenty of casualties throughout the season due to the intensely physical nature of the NZ derbies. While Sotutu is fit and ready to go for the weekend at this stage, he felt the impact of his first competitive game of rugby since the lockdown back in March.
“The body was a bit sore but it was the first game back so that was expected,” he said.
“You can’t really train for an intense game like that, especially against the Canes, it’s always real fast and also real physical as well. You feel pretty tired in the first half and then it carries on all the way through until the end of the game.”
The Blues aren’t expecting a rousing welcome from the Chiefs or the Hamilton crowd but Sotutu is hopeful that fans do continue to flock to stadiums for the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
“There’s a bit of a rivalry, always, against the Chiefs,” Sotutu admitted. “I guess they don’t like us and we don’t like them either.”
“It’s always good to have heaps of fans at the games. It just helps with the atmosphere. It pumps up both team – it helps when you’re the home team but when you’re visiting, it gets the boys up as well.”
Over 43,000 fans turned out at Eden Park to witness the Blues’ win over the Hurricanes while, by Tuesday evening, 16,000 tickets had been sold for this weekend’s grudge match with the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium, which can seat around 25,000 spectators.
Sotutua admitted that running out for the first game of rugby in over three months was a little bit nerve-wracking – but hoped that the masses of fans that turned out for the match will be a sign of things to come.
“It was definitely the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of,” Sotutu said of Sunday’s game.
“There’s always a bit of nerves but, for the most part, I was pretty excited to get out and play in front of so many Blues supporters. We’ve been working really hard to try and get Auckland back supporting us and having some more faith in us. I think we’re heading in the right direction.
“I just hope that they keep coming out and we keep making them happy.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now