Unpacking the Blues' eight-year losing streak
When the inaugural Super 12 competition kicked off in 1996, the Auckland Blues were comfortably the competition favourites.
Tournament organisers were so worried that the wider Auckland region was going to prove insurmountably strong for the rest of the competition that they split North Harbour from the Blues and deemed them as part of the Chiefs catchment area.
It came as no surprise, then, that the Blues emerged as the first ever Super Rugby champions, beating Natal in the competition final. In that first season, the Blues only lost three matches – away games in South Africa and Australia.
When 1997 rolled around, not a whole lot changed. The Blues went through the season unbeaten, only suffering a 40-all draw in Northern Transvaal against a team that we are now more accustomed to referring to as the Lions.
In the Blues’ almost two-and-a-half-year existence, there have been a number of highs and lows. The three championships they’ve won will no doubt be remembered fondly by the fans of yesteryear (their third and final win came in 2003) but more recently the Blues have treaded water, falling behind New Zealand’s four other franchises.
For the first six years of Super Rugby, the Blues had the highest average finishing position of any New Zealand team. The Crusaders, on their rise to domination, stole that mantle in 2002 and have not relinquished it since. As of last year, however, the Blues now have the lowest average finishing position of the New Zealand franchises – a concerning statistic, given they have comfortably the largest population of any of the regions.
Equally as depressing is the fact that prior to beating the Highlanders earlier this year, the Blues had gone 20 matches without defeating a New Zealand team. Of course, the New Zealand teams have been going through a purple patch in the last couple of years, taking out the last four championships and having four franchises represented in the finals since it moved to an eight-team format in 2016 (when the Blues’ run of defeats started).
The Blues downfall has been well documented, and so too has this year’s resurgence. Sitting pretty in fifth place, on a four-match winning streak, things are looking up for the Blues this year.
This weekend, however, they’ll have to face up to an even harder to believe fact: it’s been almost eight years since the Blues last beat the Chiefs, dating back to the round 16 clash in 2011.
In that timeframe, the Blues have mustered a sole draw amongst 13 defeats, with an average score-line of 21-31 in the Chiefs’ favour.
It’s pretty awful reading for any Blues tragic: the little brother down the highway outperforming you match after match, year after year. There have been some glimmers of hope amongst those matches, below we take a look at some of the more interesting fixtures.
2012 – Round 15
The Blues have had their fair share of dangerous Fijian ball runners in their history – think Rupeni Caucanibuca and Joe Rokocoko – but on this fateful night in Auckland it was the Chiefs flier Asaeli Tikoirotuma who ripped the Blues to shreds.
The Blues took an early lead in the game on the back of a try to Francis Saili, but the Chiefs quickly struck back with Tikoirotuma running onto a grubber from Aaron Cruden.
Shortly after halftime, Tikoirotuma again found himself dotting down after the Chiefs camped out in the Blues 22 and, with a numbers advantage down the left flank, shifted the ball to the Fijian speedster.
Ten minutes later, the Chiefs scored one of the slickest counter attack tries you’ll ever see. The Blues were building phases nicely in the Chiefs 22 but some lazy hands saw the ball knocked on just five metres short of the try line. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and the other backs swung the ball wide where Jackson Willison, Sonny Bill Williams, Cruden and Sam Cane all handled the ball before Tikoirotuma shot away to earn his hattrick.
But there was one more to come. The final try saw Tikoirotuma again profiting from a well-weighted kick – this time from Robbie Robinson. The Blues had managed to level the scores 34-all when, 10 minutes from time, Tikoirotuma outpaced Rudi Wulf after Robinson threaded a grubber through on the offence to earn his fourth try of the game. This was the last scoring action of the match, with the Blues left to rue another close loss.
2014 – Round 13
Astute Blues fans will remember 2014 as the last time Ma’a Nonu represented the Auckland franchise. He played a big role in the first try of the match, drawing in two Chiefs defenders before offloading to the waiting Lolagi Visinia – who juggled the ball three times before managing to dot down.
Unfortunately, it was all Chiefs for the rest of the game – or at least until the score was out of the Blues’ reach.
The Chiefs raced out to 32-13 lead courtesy of tries to Ben Tameifuna, Tim Nanai-Williams and Tom Marshall. Nanai-Williams was especially effective for the Chiefs, scything through the midfield, and caused many a problem for the Blues in the various fixtures between the two teams over the years.
The Blues scored the final try of the match after the Chiefs went down to 14 men, but that was only enough to bring a little bit of respectability to the score, with the game marking the sixth loss in a row for the Blues against the Chiefs.
2016 – Round 7
When the Chiefs scored within the first five minutes, Blues fans may have been forgiven for already writing off the match as another loss – but a drubbing may have actually been better than what eventuated.
The Chiefs held a 10-6 lead at half time but it was the Blues who came screaming out of the blocks after the break, looking like they were the ones on a winning streak. Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane both scored excellent individual tries (though there was some questionable defending going on from the Chiefs) to suddenly take the Blues out to a 20-10 lead before the match had even hit the 45-minute mark. Were the Blues on track to break the hoodoo and crush the Chiefs, who were at home in Hamilton?
In short, no, no they weren’t.
Barely ten minutes later the Chiefs took back the lead back after also scoring two quick tries to Cruden and Seta Tamanivalu and the scores remained unchanged for the next twenty minutes. It wasn’t until almost the last play of the game when the Chiefs finished off the job, scoring from a 5-metre scrum and breaking Blues supporters’ hearts.
2017 – Round 14
The closest the Blues have run the Chiefs in recent times is the 16-all draw the teams fought out in terrible conditions back in 2017.
The Chiefs went into the match knowing that they needed to make ground up on the top New Zealand side, the Crusaders, if they wanted to be at home for the upcoming finals series. The Blues, in contrast, hadn’t beaten a New Zealand team all year and were simply looking to break their duck.
The Blues took the lead early in the match through a Rieko Ioane try, but the Chiefs managed a Nanai-Williams score late in the first half to go into the break down only 13-8. The third and final try of the match came from a brilliant cross-field kick from Damian McKenzie in the final quarter of the game, but the Blues’ more accurate goalkicking meant the game finished in a disappointing draw.
2018 – Round 9
If Blues fans need a glimmer of hope that this trend could be about to end, then they need look no further than the final clash between the two teams in 2018.
Although the Chiefs took an early lead in the match due to a brilliant try scored by Sean Wainui, thanks to the slick skills of McKenzie, it was the Blues who led the game from the 35th minute when they scored their only try, until the last five minutes of the game when the Chiefs finally hit back.
The Chiefs had every stat in their favour: 60% possession, four times as many line breaks, and twice as many offloads, plus the Blues spent much of the final quarter camped out in their 22, defending the line, so it was a herculean effort by the Blues players to keep themselves in the game.
Ultimately, however, a loss is a loss, and although the clash was close, the Chiefs extended their unbeaten streak to 14 matches.
Of course, things are looking up for the Blues now. Their season kicked off with two losses but they’ve stumbled upon some reasonable form in recent weeks. Still, they’d probably feel a lot more comfortable if the Chiefs weren’t coming off two wins on tour – especially given one was a 56-20 drubbing of the then-top South African team.
The Blues will have every bit of confidence this Saturday that they can finally pull a pin on the horrific losing streak they’ve incurred at the hands of the Chiefs. They have the players, they have the form and surely they must have the belief. The Blues will be fighting to end their losing streak whilst the Chiefs will be fighting to keep their season alive – it’s going to be an exciting match no matter what the result.
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