The return to the green blades for the rugby studs in New Zealand brought plenty of excitement this past weekend – code is back, and for kiwis, that is a big deal. It had been three months since the last Super Rugby game here, and the wait fans have endured is being rewarded with an exciting 10-week competition.
To open Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Highlanders and Chiefs played out a thoroughly entertaining contest in Dunedin, that saw the ‘Landers come out on top 28-27 with a late field goal to substitute Bryn Gatland (whose father Warren was coaching the opposition – how good to stick it to your old man like that).
Sunday saw the hotly anticipated clash between the Blues and Hurricanes at a packed Eden Park. The expected crowd of 43,000 was the biggest in New Zealand since 2005 when Tana Umaga clocked 100 Super Rugby caps. It was also the first Sunday afternoon game for some time. The occasion already seems a fan favourite and received a huge tick of approval from Blues playmaker Beauden Barrett, who was making his franchise debut.
The Blues put on an impressive display, coming out on top 30-20. While the first half was tight, and the hosts released their stranglehold on the game in the dying stages, they had the upper hand for the most part, helped by exceptional kicking games from first-five Otere Black and Barrett, and menacing ball carries amongst the outside backs. The team as a whole elected for the boot on 10 more occasions than their opposition, and when they did run the ball, the Blues averaged 0.3 metres more than the ‘Canes.
Leading by one point to start the second 40 the hosts piled on 16 unaswered points through the first 25 minutes, taking advantage of the penalty count that minorly went in their favour. Black made no mistake with the boot kicking a perfect four from four in the second, and six from six overall.
To be fair, the Hurricanes were missing a couple of key players. Jordie Barrett, the form back of the competition earlier this year did not feature, Vaea Fifita was a late scratch and Ardie Savea made a cameo off the bench. But they were thoroughly outplayed by a clean and confident looking Blues side.
For years the Aucklanders have boasted a host of talented youngsters primed to lead the side in the future, and that youthful depth continues to grow.
Mark Telea on the wing beat 10 defenders, and Hoskins Sotutu at number eight led the forwards once again in running metres with 51, and snagged a couple of turnovers at the breakdown. The pair have been the team’s best players this year, and they are both only 23 and 21 respectively. Caleb Clarke, 21, had arguably his best game in a Blues jumper on the left side, with 105 running metres and breaking the defensive line twice, as well as scoring one of his side’s three tries. Sam Nock is moulding into a capable orchestrator behind the ruck and was again impressive, while the likes TJ Faiane (who is criminally underrated), Dalton Papali’i and Josh Goodhue were sound in their performances.
It is hard to pick an area the Blues struggled in, or a player that was disappointing. One thing that is humbling for the team is Barrett was far from their best on the park. He was relatively quiet in his first game in eight months, but popped up in areas, including a beautiful inside ball to help set-up Faiane for his first-half try, and a handful of pressure-relieving kicks.
Do not forget, exciting back Joe Marchant, who has a bright career ahead, still has a few games under his belt before he returns to his home country England.
The three-time champs are far from a finished product, but the flashes of brilliance are growing by the game. In 2019 we saw the start of it as they broke their hoodoo in New Zealand derbies, but failed to maintain pressure and finish off performances in other matches. A lot of that has smoothed over in 2020 bar their two early defeats to the Chiefs and Crusaders.
Their last four games before the multi-country competition was suspended delivered a points difference of plus-62, an average winning margin of 15.5 a game. Their form away from home has been exceptional, with a perfect record highlighted by victories over the Waratahs, Bulls and Stormers off shore.
The Blues also have a secret weapon waiting in the ranks in new-signing Dan Carter. Now it is easy to look at the move as nothing more than a mentor role, and a marketing tool. But there is a lot more to it.
Carter, now 38, will not feature until he gets up to match fitness. But as All Blacks strength and conditioning coach Nic Gill said on Newstalk ZB, the only thing Carter will lose with age is speed, nothing is stopping him from maintaining a high level of fitness and durability. Given his revered work ethic, he can still make a huge impact on the field. His recent form in Japan attests to that.
The Blues’ current dual-playmaker approach which has worked wonders also gives the former Crusader a greater chance of cracking the starting side at some point. He could even slot into second-five should Faiane be taken out, for whatever reason.
Off the ball Carter’s impact is yet to take full effect, given he has been with the team for all of two weeks. If he cannot rediscover any credible form in the blue jersey, the knowledge he can pass on will make him an asset to fellow playmakers.
The Blues next two clashes come against the Chiefs (A) and the Highlanders (H) before a bye in week four. Particularly next week’s tussle with their North Island rivals will be a big telling point of where they are at. The Chiefs are one of the competition’s two front runners alongside the Crusaders, thanks to the arrival of Warren Gatland as coach and the return of Aaron Cruden (from overseas) and Damian McKenzie (injury).
But to be fair, the weird-ness of 2020 has thrown most if not everything valid on paper out the window. Who knows what will happen from here.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.