The Blues’ penultimate showing of the season ended with a deflationary thud in Christchurch, a 29-6 loss at the hands of the Crusaders that only confirmed the worst for the Blues and their fans.
The result suggests that the side has regressed in a number of ways however once you dig a little deeper, this was essentially a ‘B’ team sent out by Leon Macdonald and his staff.
The Crusaders spine of Codie Taylor, Mitch Drummond, Richie Mo’unga and Will Jordan up against Kurt Eklund, Jonathan Ruru, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta makes for little comparison. Four All Blacks versus none.
Although the side lost inspirational captain Patrick Tuipulotu to injury prior to the match, there was little sense to the team that was picked for what was the defining match of the Blues’ season.
A win or, at a minimum, a losing bonus point was required to ensure the last round clash against the Chiefs had any bearing on who would make the final.
Instead, the Blues were left with nothing and an anti-climatic ending to a season that held so much hope after a resurgent 2020 and a fast start in 2021.
Harry Plummer, who had played at second five nearly all season, was thrust into the first five role at the expense of Otere Black.
The same Otere Black who kept Beauden Barrett at fullback for most of last season and had continued to take strides in 2021 evolving as a rounded playmaker.
Against the Hurricanes in round 1 in Wellington, he produced two try assists to orchestrate a defeat of his former club. A cross-field kick to Caleb Clarke and a selfless pass for fullback Stephen Perofeta to stroll over lifted the Blues to a comprehensive victory.
In the Blues’ most complete performance of the year against the Highlanders at home, both Black and Perofeta were instrumental in creating opportunities for the talented outside backs at their disposal and the Blues backline flourished as a result.
At that point in the season, Black was putting his hand up as the second-best 10 in the country behind Mo’unga and would have been under consideration to enter the All Blacks’ fold.
By the time the Blues’ biggest game of the season rolled around, he was sitting on the bench as a spectator.
Although Black was forced onto the field after fifteen minutes, they hardly inspired confidence in their 10 by opting to start Plummer.
Coach Leon MacDonald expressed his frustration over how second five Taniela Tele’a was removed from play by the match doctor after fifteen minutes, saying that the decision forced the Blues to abandon their game plan that they had practised all week.
It’s hard to believe that the Blues were prepared to use a midfielder who hadn’t started all year as the centre piece of their game plan for such a crucial clash. Never mind where last year’s rising star TJ Faiane was, Tele’a was going to shape this critical game for the Blues.
The intent of the selection can be construed, they wanted a strong crash ball runner at 12 to win gain line consistently on the first phase to set-up strikes or switches around a midfield ruck on latter phases in order to push the Crusaders’ defence through the middle first and then use that momentum to get them while on the back foot.
Having two 10s like Black and Plummer in the line-up would not allow a direct approach and one had to go, yet it was the guy that they have invested nearly two years of starts in that got sent to the pine.
Last year, the Blues were a side that kicked heavily for territory with Beauden Barrett, Otere Black and Sam Nock their top three kickers, none of whom were in the starting side on Sunday.
The Blues kicked the most of all the New Zealand teams in 2020 and had the highest percentage of territorial kicks. Presumably, this compact and simple game was to aid their big pack around the field and keep them moving forward.
They have powerful, bruising big men that are more renowned for punishing defence and strong set-piece rather than deft passing touches and interlinking play with backs so a kick-heavy game suits them.
In 2021, the balance of kicking has fallen dramatically away from the preference of territorial advancement, from 41 per cent of kicks last year to 28 per cent this year.
They used to have three rucks for every kick, now they’re sitting on a ratio of 6:1.
They are now the side that kicks the least, by some distance, of the five New Zealand teams.
Halfback Nock has rarely been sighted in 2021, notching two starts in both wins over the Hurricanes and a bench appearance in the win against the Highlanders at home. In the matches he has played in, the Blues are 3-0 and the matches without him playing a part, they are 0-4.
There is a case to be made that Nock is the best half on the roster, with an efficient and clean passing motion and a kicking game that the Blues themselves relied on heavily last year.
Nock can offer a speed of service that the bigger man Ruru can’t, yet it seems like Ruru has a mortgage over the starting position. Where was Nock on Sunday? He’s just another long-term investment that the Blues have decided to shelve away this year for reasons unknown.
28-year-old Ruru hasn’t shown a lot in terms of nuanced ball-playing and creativity to give the side a genuine playmaker at the base of the ruck, often at odds with reading his own teammates.
An errant pass in the first half against the Crusaders cost the Blues an attacking possession and showed that he wasn’t quite on the same page as Rieko Ioane trying to take the carry.
Without Patrick Tuipulotu and Josh Goodhue, the Blues were forced to rely on young Sam Darry in the second row, with another out-of-region recruit Taine Plumtree on the bench. These two are players of the future with great potential, perhaps not for the here and now but that was without choice.
Where they did have choice, the decisions were puzzling. Missing experience in the pack, the Blues put All Black starter Ofa Tu’ungafasi on the bench in favour of Nepo Laulala and instead of the barnstorming Akira Ioane, went with the Blake Gibson project at 6.
Gibson has been a developing player for years and now at 26-years-old, it is time to question whether there will ever be the leap to the next level, particularly with the injuries he has fought back from.
It’s not clear what the Blues wanted from their 6, but Ioane proved last year he could take fewer carries and be a defensive monster as part of a dominant backrow with Papalii and Sotutu. Given a chance in the All Blacks, Ioane was the physical force at international level that he has promised for years.
When injected into the game, Ioane was arguably the best player on the field. If the Blues were serious about this game, why didn’t he start? Comparing All Black in his prime versus a development player, the decision should be obvious.
As if by poetic justice, the first four players Will Jordan went past on route to his first try less than five minutes into proceedings were Blake Gibson, Nepo Laulala, Jonathan Ruru and Harry Plummer, punishing all four decisions at once.
Playing his guts out, co-captain Dalton Papalii was immense in snatching four turnovers and delivering the kind of performance the Blues needed across the park. Hoskins Sotutu clocked up the most metres of any forward on the park, closely followed by Akira coming off the bench.
The Blues needed all three on the park to start with to try and gain ascendency early. When they fell behind, they were always up against it.
We are left with more questions than answers following the deflating end to the Blues hopes in Christchurch. The first and foremost of which is, what were they expecting to happen with a ‘B’ side against the defending champions with the season on the line?
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