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RUGBYPASS+ Running before walking

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Running before walking

When the Blues travelled down to Hamilton earlier this year to take on the Chiefs, they came within a hair’s breadth of knocking over the eventual Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists.

Despite leading for all but four minutes of the game, the Blues couldn’t hold on in the dying moments and Damian McKenzie crashed over for a try which handed the home side a 15-12 victory.

That Round 5 loss is perhaps the one the Blues would have rued the most when they entered the final week of the regular season – five points adrift of the Chiefs on the competition ladder and incapable of pipping the Hamiltonians for a spot in the grand final.

Following the game, coach Leon McDonald lamented his team’s repeated decisions to turn down penalty kicks at goal – five in all – in favour of popping the ball into the corner and attempting to score a try.

The Blues were left to rue countless points left unconverted following their loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton earlier this year. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

“From the box we were pretty happy to go to the posts, but they felt they wanted to try and get into the game and get their maul going,” MacDonald said

“It’s something we’ll discuss. Tight games, you accumulate points when you can.”

Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu, who’s not featured since that match thanks to a lingering shoulder injury, was confident heading into his side’s following fixture that they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

“We weren’t happy with how we played,” Tuipulotu told Stuff. “There was ill-discipline, things we are usually good at, we didn’t seem to do.

“Then you add in some improvements in game management around penalty kicks and whether to go for the line or goal … we’re trying to improve that and we should be better off.”

They’re critical. It’s a sprint. You’ve got 10 teams into two. You’ve gotta be there. It’s a sprint, it’s going to be a hell of a comp.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson on the importance of bonus points

While the Blues didn’t quite right the ship enough to propel themselves into the Aotearoa final, shedding victories to the Highlanders and Crusaders in the latter half of the tournament, Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is a new competition altogether and if their victory on Saturday against the Rebels is anything to go by, the Blues are at least taking the lessons they learnt from some of their earlier losses into the new campaign.

The commonly held belief seems to be that simply winning games won’t be enough to progress to the ultimate match of this new competition.

The New Zealand sides are supposedly a touch above their Australian opposition and come the end of the five weeks of matches, at least a few Kiwi teams will be undefeated and bonus points will decide the finalists.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, following his side’s narrow victory over the Brumbies, indicated that bonus points will certainly have a part to play in the final wash-up – which is why his side turned down a three-point opportunity late in their match while only ahead by seven.

It paid dividends for the Crusaders at the time, with Cullen Grace crashing over for a try, but the Brumbies eventually came back with two late scores and came within a whisker of earning a draw – had Noah Lolesio’s last minute conversion sailed true.

Noah Lolesio wasn’t able to convert a last minute try for the Brumbies which would have handed his side an unlikely draw with the Crusaders in Christchurch. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Photosport)

“31-17, five tries to two, fourteen minutes to go – we’re still in a position where we can take the 5 points and then all of a sudden, we’re looking down the barrel of a draw,” Robertson said following the victory.

“It was repeated infringements and we were down in the corner,” he said in explaining why his team kicked to the sidelines. “There was a penalty that we probably should have taken a shot at to take us outside… [It just] depends where the penalty is, there’s lot of different situations.

“[Bonus points] are critical. It’s a sprint. You’ve got 10 teams into two. You’ve gotta be there. It’s a sprint, it’s going to be a hell of a comp.”

There’s perhaps some truth to the notion that bonus points will decide the finalists, especially after all five NZ teams came out on top of their Australian opposition over the weekend, but it’s a mindset that could prove incredibly self-destructive, especially if the Chiefs’ serendipitous win over the Western Force is anything to go by.

In that win over the Blues earlier in the season, the Chiefs played smarter rugby.

They took the points on offer and emerged as victors, despite many writing off their chances ahead of the match.

If you’ve seen the trends with a lot of the New Zealand teams, everyone started doing that as well towards the end. It would be nice to cross the line a few more times.

Chiefs assistance coach Roger Randle

They threw that approach out against the Force, however, and kicked to the corner time and time again – and had little to show for it by half time, managing just a solitary try.

In the second half, their ascendancy around the park and especially at scrum time was minimised and like the Crusaders, they were lucky to escape with the points after the Force’s replacement No 10 Domingo Miotti missed a post-buzzer conversion.

Ahead of the game, Chiefs assistant coach Roger Randle had suggested that tactics may get a mix-up for the Trans-Tasman competition.

“We were happy to take threes this year when we get those opportunities with the games so close,” he said.

“If you’ve seen the trends with a lot of the New Zealand teams, everyone started doing that as well towards the end. It would be nice to cross the line a few more times. For us, it’s still, ultimately, about trying to get a win first.”

While the Chiefs dominated much of the first half in their win over the Force, they weren’t able to build as much pressure on the scoreboard as they would have liked. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

Of course, nothing would have inspired the Western Force more than hearing that their opposition were already talking about bonus points before the game even kicked off and they provided the Super Rugby Aotearoa finalists with a mighty scare that could have put their season on the ropes after just one round of action.

Randle’s fellow assistant at the Chiefs, Nick White, suggested this week that his side was trying to do too much early in the match.

“Play how we were supposed to play,” White responded when asked how the Chiefs could improve for their upcoming game against the Brumbies. “Play at the right end of the field, don’t give stupid penalties away and hold on to the ball. Earn the right.

“I’m probably guilty of it too, I talked to someone last week about [how] we needed bonus points but bonus points you’ll generally pick up in the last 20 minutes of the game if you’ve earned the right in the first 60 minutes, so don’t try and get them in the first 20 minutes.

“First of all, you’ve got to win the game.”

The Crusaders went undefeated against their Antipodean neighbours from 2016 until 2019 and the Australian teams failed to secure a single win against any Kiwi sides in 2017, but perfect seasons have otherwise been few and far between.

Ironically, it was the Blues who probably approached their opposition with the greatest respect, taking the points when on offer in the first half and after building some scoreboard pressure, cutting loose in the second half to win 50-3. They took that approach despite the fact they were playing the Rebels, who finished second from bottom in the Super Rugby AU competition, while the Chiefs and Crusaders were playing the Australian finalists.

From the outside looking in, some of the New Zealand franchises seemed to buy into the belief that they would be far too good for their Australian rivals and played as if the victories were inevitable – an assumption with little evidence behind it.

The Crusaders went undefeated against their Antipodean neighbours from 2016 until 2019 and the Australian teams failed to secure a single win against any Kiwi sides in 2017, but perfect seasons have otherwise been few and far between.

The Hurricanes did it in 2019 and 2005, the Chiefs did it in 2018, and the Blues have accomplished the feat a handful of times but the last occurrence prior to 2017 was in 2007. That 2017 year was the Highlanders’ only undefeated season against Australian opposition.

The freewheeling Blues had far too much fire power in their side for the Rebels to handle but they complemented that advantage with some much-needed patience. (Photo by AAP Image/Scott Barbour

Former All Blacks hooker James Parsons recently suggested that it would be naïve to assume that five victories are a given for all five of the Kiwi teams.

“I feel like this competition is going to tighten up,” the Blues centurion said on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I think, or maybe I’m hoping, that you’re going to be able to drop a game and it’s going to be tighter than we think – and it’s not going to be two teams that win five that make the final, just so it makes it a little bit interesting.

“If you drop one, you definitely have to pick up bonus points to make a final and those bonus points are crucial.

“I think the way Razor [Scott Robertson] was really frustrated at not getting the bonus point when they were in a great position to shows how important it is and how aware he is of it. That’s just the way most teams are thinking, they know how crucial those bonus points are going to be.”

Complacency is the enemy of progress and while all five New Zealand teams emerged with wins from the opening round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, the Crusaders and Chiefs were given some timely shots in the arm.

The underdog Australian clubs will be looking for any signs of weakness this weekend and if the Kiwi sides try to run before they walk, their opposition will pounce.

Failing to secure a bonus point in a couple of matches won’t prematurely end any campaigns, but a loss or two will inevitably consign teams to another post-season of ‘could have beens’.

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