Blues face major test vs Stormers in Super Rugby’s 5th round
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — If the Auckland-based Blues are finally to become contenders in Super Rugby again they may have to provide evidence of that ability when they play the unbeaten Stormers in the weekend’s fifth round.
The Blues won the inaugural title in 1996 and won it again in 2003. But they’ve made the semifinals only twice in the last 17 years and their more-recent record has been of dysfunction and under-performance. Since 2011 their best placing has been ninth.
A series of high-profile coaches — Pat Lam, John Kirwan and Tana Umaga — have been unable to turn around the Blues who have New Zealand’s largest player catchment but who have been the worst-performed of New Zealand’s five teams for most of the last decade.
They have had two main failings: an inability to win away from home and an inability to win against other New Zealand teams. Their two wins in eight matches over Kiwi opponents last year were their first in almost three years.
Those shortcomings are symptomatic of wider problems. The Blues have recruited unwisely for years, repeatedly failing to deal with their most significant weaknesses at scrumhalf and flyhalf. This year they finally have addressed half of that problem by signing All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett. But Barrett won’t be available until April and that may be too late to change the fortunes of the Blues if they haven’t already begun to improve.
The more specific problem for the Blues has been the under-performance of leading players. None of their celebrity coaches has been able consistently to draw out the best of some of their most talented individuals.
Lock and captain Patrick Tuipulotu has been a case in point. A hugely talented player, highly regarded by the All Blacks, he has struggled to play at his peak for long periods. Many more players have been similarly lacking when the Blues needed them most.
The Blues appear to lack the tough outlook of other New Zealand teams and their long-standing lack of success may have contributed to a defeatist outlook. New Zealand derbies are among the toughest matches in Super Rugby and the Blues lack the hardness and focus to compete for 80 minutes in those games.
The Blues’ record this season is typical. They lost to New Zealand conference rivals the Chiefs and Crusaders, beat the Waratahs in Australia and edged to a win of South Africa’s Bulls last weekend with a penalty in the final minute.
The Stormers will be much tougher than the Bulls and less forgiving of the Blue’s many errors. Last week’s match was played in rain, Saturday’s will likely be in dry conditions and if the Blues try again to play at pace they will have to do so with efficiency.
Stormers coach John Dobson said the Blues would be a difficult opponent.
“They’re quite unpredictable,” he said. “You can work out the shape of teams like the Hurricanes and Jaguares easily but this (Blues team) is unusual,” he said.
“They’re physical but they’re sort of quite off-the-cuff as well. So, it is a challenge for us, we haven’t played a team like this.”
The weekend’s fifth round of matches has lost some of its interest because the ACT Brumbies, Hamilton-based Chiefs and Christchurch-based Crusaders — the best teams in the competition after the Stormers — all have byes.
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