As the Blues bumbled their way to their loss to the Chiefs at Eden Park, it became increasingly clear that for all of Aaron Cruden’s coolness and Anton Lienert-Brown’s midfield power which sparked the visitors’ comeback what Leon MacDonald’s men are lacking most of all is leadership.
They have lost a lot of experience in the departures of Sonny Bill Williams (who admittedly played only a dozen games for them over the last two seasons), Ma’a Nonu and even Melani Nanai, but contrast their lack of direction with the way new Crusaders’ players constantly perform with poise and intelligence despite their relative youth.
The Crusaders made their bonus point victory over the Waratahs in Nelson appear so easy at times it was similarly easy to forget they were playing without Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua and Ryan Crotty.
The defending champions again looked so enthusiastic with and without the ball that their supporters might again be looking towards the final in June with a good degree of comfort but, perhaps more crucially, they all seem to have the ability to weigh up options and generally execute the right one with a speed and accuracy that few can muster at the Blues, regardless of experience. That comes from good coaching off the pitch but also certain expectations from those on it.
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For the Blues on Friday night, flanker Tony Lamborn had a night to remember before he was replaced and wings Rieko Ioane and Mark Telea and second-five TJ Faiane showed skill on attack but the Blues aren’t lacking for power or pace – they very rarely are. What they desperately need are strong leaders, particularly in the backline, who have the requisite decision-making and influence to help them close out games.
The Blues lost several close matches last season on their way to a 13th-placed finish and on the evidence of round one it doesn’t appear like a lot has changed. It’s clear that Beauden Barrett’s arrival – slated for mid-April – can’t come quickly enough.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 2, 2020
“It’s disappointing given the position we played our way into,” MacDonald said afterwards in a masterclass of understatement.
So while there was a Groundhog Day element to it all – a relatively close loss after getting into a promising position, another milestone (Rieko Ioane’s 50th match) marked by a speech on fulltime in front of a rapidly dwindling and mostly glum and resigned crowd, and MacDonald’s attempts to find the positives all over again, it was a very different story for Cruden, the returning 31-year-old first-five, and coach Warren Gatland, last seen in these parts wearing a clown nose.
It appears that Gatland’s arrival has imbued the Chiefs with a resolve and confidence not seen since the days of Dave Rennie in the championship years of 2012 and 2013. It’s also pretty clear that while Cruden didn’t do anything overly special once he ran on after halftime, he didn’t need to. He simply took the right options and executed well.
So Blues fans will be disappointed but perhaps not to the same extent as supporters of the Hurricanes, whose team failed to fire a shot against the Stormers in Cape Town. Jason Holland’s men didn’t have a clue in the 27-0 defeat and it has highlighted by a lack of discipline which saw Billy Proctor and Vaea Fifita sinbinned in the second half and complaints of foul play around a late tackle on Stormers and Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, after which he left the field with a knee injury.
With no obvious leader in their backline, and Ardie Savea out for another couple of months due to a knee injury, Holland’s men are set to struggle this season. In fact, they may win fewer matches than the Blues.
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