Two weeks ago, the Blues were heading into their match with the Crusaders knowing that a victory would put them in great stead to earn a home Super Rugby Aotearoa grand final.
Now, entering their first match of the repeat round of fixtures, it’s not unfathomable to suggest that a third loss on the trot could potentially end their chances of even making that ultimate match, let alone hosting it.
The 43-27 loss at Eden Park against the Crusaders wasn’t a crippling blow – they entered the match as outside favourites – but last weekend’s loss to the Chiefs was not the bounce-back that coaches Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga would have been hoping to see from their charges.
Now, the Auckland-based side are sitting eight points adrift of the competition-leading Crusaders and just two ahead of the Chiefs – with all teams having played four games.
Obviously, second place is still good enough for a finals spot – but the Blues’ form over their past two matches doesn’t reflect their current place on the table and unless they can stop the rot against the Hurricanes on Saturday evening, it might be too late to prevent a downwards slide.
Understandably, MacDonald had a few choice words for his players following the loss to the Chiefs – particularly concerning their repeated decision last weekend to turn down kickable penalties in favour of popping the ball into the corner and pushing for a try.
The Chiefs repelled the Blues’ attempts time and time again and it was only after a botched lineout from the defending side – who’d earned themselves a penalty moments earlier – that the Blues were able to capitalise.
Ultimately the Blues fell short by just three points, going down 15-12 in Hamilton.
Captain Patrick Tuipulotu has acknowledged that his side’s decision-making wasn’t up to standard for the game.
“We weren’t happy with how we played,” Tuipulotu told Stuff ahead of this weekend’s rematch with the Hurricanes. “There was ill-discipline, things we are usually good at, we didn’t seem to do.
It wasn't smooth sailing for the star All Black as he got his first real taste of a tough Top League derby. https://t.co/Dcnw47QXOS
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 30, 2021
“Then you add in some improvements in game management around penalty kicks and whether to go for the line or goal … we’re trying to improve that and we should be better off.”
While Tuipulotu said that MacDonald had faith in the Blues leaders to make smart on-field decisions and play the picture in front of them, he also suggested that the side could turn to assistant Umaga, who spends games camped out on the sideline and close to the action.
“Definitely look to the sideline more, look for Tana,” he said. “It’s just understanding what pressure we’re under, are we strong at set piece time, and if it’s an easy kick, take the points.
“We left a lot of points out there.”
The Blues secured a relatively comfortable 31-16 win over the Hurricanes in Wellington earlier this season but since that match, the Hurricanes have steadily improved.
They built a strong lead against the Chiefs two weeks ago but ultimately fell to a strong comeback from the in-form side and then easily disposed of the Highlanders in Dunedin over the weekend.
They will undoubtedly arrive at Eden Park full of confidence while also being acutely aware that one more loss would likely also put a stopper on their finals charge.
Two desperate teams will fight it out in Auckland on Saturday evening and one will find themselves under increasing pressure once the full-time siren sounds – but don’t expect the Blues to make the same cardinal errors they did against the Chiefs last week.
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