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MacDonald hails Blues' 'complete performance' ahead of top Australian opposition

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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In the wake of the Blues’ sizeable 71-28 victory over the Rebels, coach Leon MacDonald has praised his side’s performance following two less-than-impressive showings across the ditch and a slow start on Friday night that saw them down 14-0 after just five minutes of play.

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Capitalising on two lineout errors, Rebels forwards Pone Fa’aumasili and Josh Canham both found themselves on the scoreboard with well-taken tries that left the Blues facing an uphill battle effectively right from the kick-off.

After some mixed performances in recent weeks that saw the Blues notch just two tries in the back 40 minutes of their away fixtures against the Fijian Drua and the Western Force, signs weren’t looking good for the home team at Eden Park – but it didn’t take long for the Blues to spring back into action against the Rebels with Akira Ioane dotting down for his first try of the evening after 7 minutes of play.

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Six minutes later, Ioane was in again – and from that point on, MacDonald’s men were cruising.

“It wasn’t an ideal start,” MacDonald acknowledged after the match. “But these things can happen and they’re good little challenges for us to overcome and I think for Dalton [Paplii] to be the skipper and make sure that we didn’t panic and we stayed composed, I think we bounced back well.

“By and large, the huddle was a nice controlled one – it was about what we needed to do next to get back into the game. And sports happens like this. You’re going to have some adversity because that’s the way it is but I thought we dealt with that really well.”

While the opening five minutes obviously didn’t go the home team’s way, MacDonald felt that the Blues put the closest thing to a complete performance out on the park that he had seen all season – and one which was peppered with plenty of razzle-dazzle.

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“The discipline was probably the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “We’ve obviously had a couple of weeks where we’ve managed to get a lead and then we’ve buttoned off and let the opposition back in or got a bit sloppy with discipline or skill and I thought this was a much more complete performance [on] both sides of the ball.

“I know we conceded a couple of tries but a lot of the defensive play in the second half when they had nothing to lose and they chucked a lot at us, we withstood and our penalty count was in the single digits. That was a big step up from where we’ve been as well.

“We knew we had it in us. We were frustrated that we had let ourselves down a little bit [against the Drua and Force]. We just needed to refocus and make sure that each individual brought their best throughout the whole week, the way they trained and the way that they prepared, both physically and mentally. The timing of the pass, the support lines that we were running, the way we moved around the park was a big step up from where we’ve been in the last couple of weeks.”

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The Blues finished the match with 11 tries to their name, made 13 linebreaks to the Rebels’ three, beat 35 defenders to the Rebels’ nine and also threw 21 offloads to the Rebels’ four whilst conceding just 10 turnovers throughout the match.

As MacDonald alluded to, they also rarely got too overzealous on attack and knew when to throw men into rucks and when to fan them out along the width of the park – with the forwards regularly churning through metres in the middle of the park and getting involved in both the tight and loose attacks.

“I think the decision making around the offload [impressed the most] – I didn’t think we were flippant at all, I think [there was] maybe one loose offload in the game really where I think we should have probably taken it,” he said. “In a game that can open up, that’s probably been our Achilles heel in the past, we started getting a little bit over-excited there.

“It’s hard to single out any forward, I thought everybody had their moments. A lot of the interplay stuff came on the back of some pretty heavy carries. I thought James Tucker got some good yards through the middle. I thought Kurt Eklund, early on where their wall was a bit starcher, he was really putting some hard carries in there.

“We earned the right the right way. We were physical in our clean-outs. I thought we fought really hard in that contact area and made it really hard for them to get set on defence, which set up our backs later on.”

Captain Papalii shared similar sentiments with his coach.

“When the flair’s going and we’re dominating it’s because we’re doing the basics well,” he said. “That start we didn’t execute and we were piggy-backing down the field through our discipline.

“It just goes to show we could be one of the best teams, if not the best team in the country or in the world or in this comp when we’re doing the basics well. We’ve just got to keep harping on about that and keep getting the job done.”

Having dispatched of the three lower-ranked Australian-based sides, the Blues are now set to take on the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs to round out their regular season knowing that a clean run of victories will ensure they end the knockout stages as the top-seeded team – which will give them the all-important home advantage.

“The next little while’s critical, it’s going to dictate where we finish on the table,” MacDonald said.

“We love playing at Eden Park. We’ve played well here over the last few years, we’ve been hard to beat here. I think the Crusaders are the only team that’s beaten us here for a little while. To give us every opportunity of a run home, it makes a big difference. And also pride defending our record here. I think that’s really important.”

“We don’t need to change anything,” added Papalii. “We know the process. Talking to [Luke] Romano, all that experience, and he said these are the times where you don’t back off, you just keep ramping it up, keep pushing that little bit extra, and I think the boys will keep doing that. We got a taste of how good we can be and I think it sort of gives us another drive, we’re just going to keep pushing.”

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