Credit where it’s due.
The Blues weren’t just a Super Rugby also-ran for a decade or more, they weren’t even relevant.
No, the Blues were an utter embarrassment to rugby in New Zealand and appeared completely ill-equipped to change that.
The talisman or messiah became a staple of Blues rugby. Roll out a beloved former player as head coach – no matter how unsuitable for the job or how threadbare the actual squad was – and everything will be sweet.
The public will be so distracted by all the bells, whistles and good intentions that they won’t notice what a rabble the team is.
This – let us never forget – is the franchise who signed Benji Marshall to play first five-eighth.
New Zealand Rugby eventually acted and now we’re looking at an outfit who might finish 2021 as the best side in Super Rugby. They’re certainly the most talented and all that remains is to see if they can translate that into results when it matters.
That’s long been the bulwark of the Crusaders’ success. Sure their teams have had playing ability, but their greatest achievement in knockout situations has been not beating themselves.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Crusaders have long allowed you to have the ball and to enjoy some field position, all while gradually decimating your set-pieces. When you panic and are drawn into a mistake, they’ll score on the counter and that’ll be that.
You might feel as if you’ve played all the rugby and, actually, you have. It’s just that – in playing all that rugby – you’ve also made all the mistakes and the Crusaders have punished you every time.
This season has rapidly developed into a two-horse race and it would be easy to talk this Sunday at home against the Crusaders up as a chance to gauge the Blues’ title credentials. Ultimately, though, it’s not on sunny Sunday afternoons that Super Rugby champions reveal themselves.
No, they invariably emerge on cold and damp nights in Christchurch, clad in their traditional red-and-black colours.
Sunday is still intriguing, though.
The Blues, now ably coached by Leon MacDonald, have assembled the type of squad that does win titles.
They have size and depth in the tight five, abrasive and multi-talented loose forwards, good wings and a rapidly-improving centre.
The Blues should compete with the Crusaders up front. They might even dominate.
Given that platform, it wouldn’t be a shock to see marquee men such as Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane occasionally run rampant.
The Blues’ issues are potentially at 9, 10, 12 and 15.
Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta all have their moments. Each has ability, but none has proven themselves when it matters.
That’s the challenge for MacDonald this season. He’s done exceptionally well to build a battery of competent props and to coax consistent performances out of the Ioane brothers, but he knows where the big games are won.
If Ruru and Black and Plummer and Perofeta can execute their skills when it matters, then maybe even the mighty Crusaders won’t better the Blues this season.
Sunday serves up a mouth-watering taste of things to come, but it won’t be until May that we find out which of these two teams truly is the finest in the country.
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