For in-form midfielder TJ Faiane, a stand-in captain with the sizeable boots of Patrick Tuipulotu to fill against the Lions at Eden Park this afternoon, the secret to the Blues’ improvement this season is simple — better fitness which has led to better decision-making.
That players have turned up to a new season in better nick than before is a common refrain but there seems to be real substance in it as far as the Blues are concerned.
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Certainly, it allowed No 8 Akira Ioane to get through 80 very good minutes in the victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington despite playing only a grand total of 12 previously this season, and that solid conditioning foundation has allowed for a greater workrate and a more ruthless edge when it comes to option taking.
“I think we’re a fitter team,” Faiane said. “Our strength and conditioning team have done well this off season to get the boys in good nick and we’re executing. We’re just mentally tougher I think.
“It’s not just the individual with the ball making decisions, it’s the guys around him. When you’re fitter you can do that under fatigue. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Blues have rarely been associated with the word “composure” over the last decade but they have become far more adjacent to it this season.
The form and leadership of Tuipulotu and the depth of the loose forwards where Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii, Tony Lamborn, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu are vying for three starting positions and one on the bench, has flowed through to a backline well led by first-five Otere Black and a midfield partnership of Faiane and Rieko Ioane which is building nicely.
Stephen Perofeta missed a couple of high balls against the Hurricanes but has impressed at fullback, with Mark Telea a find on the left wing.
“The camp is happy,” Faiane said. “Monday is always good after a good win. We just have to keep our foot on the throat and keep our momentum going.”
He added when asked about his team’s position on the table: “You don’t win trophies after seven rounds.”
The loss of Tuipulotu this week, due to an enforced All Black rest period is a blow but in theory this new version of Leon MacDonald’s team have the depth to survive it against the Lions. All of the squad are aware they have yet to win at home this season, however.
“He’s been probably our most consistent player so I’ve got big boots to fill,” Faiane said of the big Blues and All Blacks lock. “But I’ve got a good team around me so I won’t be doing it all by myself.”
And to cap off a remarkable few weeks and three consecutive wins, Beauden Barrett has finally started training with his new franchise and has made an immediate impact.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year is scheduled to run out for the Blues next month and possibly for the match against his former Hurricanes team at Eden Park on April 11.
“He’s quick eh, that’s the first thing I noticed,” Faiane said of one of the best playmakers in the world. “He’s a cool cat. He hasn’t really spoken up as much yet, I think he’s still feeling his way in. He’s smart and the team will be better with him in it.”
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