Out of the blue

Sun, 03 Mar 2013 15:37
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The Blues’ surprisingly dominant start to the season continues the recent rise of Super Rugby dark horses, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

The Blues’ surprisingly dominant start to the season continues the recent rise of Super Rugby dark horses.

In recent seasons, at least one franchise have come from obscurity to defy logic and the expectations of all in the know. In 2011, it was the Reds who rose up the ranks to clinch their first ever Super Rugby title.

The unfancied Chiefs followed suit in 2012, surprising all and sundry by winning the ultra competitive New Zealand Conference and going on to become only the sixth franchise to capture the Super Rugby crown.

The Brumbies and Hurricanes also exceeded expectations last year and narrowly missed out on play-off places, finishing seventh and eighth respectively, with the Brumbies denied the Australian Conference title and a home play-off by a final-round loss to the Blues.

This year it is the Blues who have sprung a major surprise with their back-to-back hammerings of the Hurricanes and Crusaders. After last year’s disastrous campaign, which saw the Auckland side finish a franchise worst 12th that resulted in the axing of coach Pat Lam and departure of key players such as Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Alby Mathewson, a young, inexperienced Blues side were expected to struggle in this, their rebuilding year.

And while it’s far too early to declare the three-time champions title contenders once more, their performances over the past fortnight were a timely reminder of the value of world-class coaching and renewed self belief.

The manner and degree in which these teams returned to relevancy may differ, but their resurgence stem from the same origin. Ewen McKenzie (Reds), Dave Rennie (Chiefs), Jake White (Brumbies), Mark Hammett (Hurricanes) and John Kirwan (Blues) - all masterful mentors who highlight the distinct difference between a good coach and an exceptional one.      

Kirwan, in his debut Super Rugby season, has one of the greatest minds and most successful coaches of all time to call on in Graham Henry, the World Cup-winning former All Black boss and inaugural Blues coach serving as his technical adviser.

The tactical revolution of the team aside, the confidence and character the pair have instilled in their exuberant squad is uncanny and the primary reason for the franchise’s turnaround in fortune. It all starts in the top two inches and no-one knows this better than the decorated Blues duo.

No longer are they a group of individuals; they are a cohesive unit and play as such. Their confidence and unity are reflected in their positive play and are reaping immediate rewards.   

It would take some time scrolling through the Super Rugby archives to find the last time the mighty Crusaders were as thoroughly outclassed as they were at Eden Park at the weekend.

The Blues ran in five tries and kept the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history tryless in their 34-15 bonus point triumph in a masterclass of positive, aggressive and cerebral rugby. From the outset it was apparent what the Blues’ intentions were - they were going to back themselves and hit the Crusaders with a diverse attack of forward drives, inventive backline plays and smart tactical kicking.

Their approach was in stark contrast to that of the Sharks and Stormers - the two teams expected to spearhead South Africa’s challenge - at Kings Park, and therein lays the true value of a great coach.

The two South African powerhouses employed the same stale and predictable strategy; they played not to lose whilst the Blues played to win. That’s the major difference between South African and New Zealand rugby and the reason behind the increasing gulf between rugby’s greatest foes.

You can romanticise the ‘arm-wrestle’ in Durban all you like, accentuate the positives (the commitment and physicality of the players) and attempt to hide the blatant lack of tactical ingenuity by the coaches and it will still pale in comparison with the spectacle the Blues and Crusaders dished up in Auckland.

South African coaches deserve an equal measure of indignation as the rich plaudits Kirwan, Henry and the rest of the Blues coaching staff are receiving for their positive approach to the game.       

By Quintin van Jaarsveld

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Fri, 23 February 2018
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Dragons v Edinburgh 19h30 Rodney Parade
Scarlets v Ulster 19h35 Parc y Scarlets
Leinster v Kings 19h35 RDS
France v Italy 20h00 Paris
Sat, 24 February 2018
Sunwolves v Brumbies 04h15 Tokyo
Crusaders v Chiefs 06h35 Christchurch
Waratahs v Stormers 08h45 Allianz Park
Treviso v Connacht 12h00 Stadio Monigo
Lions v Jaguares 13h05 Johannesburg
Exeter Chiefs v Northampton Saints 14h00 Sandy Park
Ireland v Wales 14h15 Aviva Stadium
Harlequins v Newcastle Falcons 14h30 Twickenham Stoop
Bath v Sale Sharks 14h30 Recreation Ground
Gloucester v Wasps 14h30 Kingsholm
Bulls v Hurricanes 15h15 Loftus Versfeld
Scotland v England 16h45 BT Murrayfield
Ospreys v Cheetahs 17h30 Liberty Stadium
Sun, 25 February 2018
London Irish v Worcester Warriors 13h00 Madejski Stadium
Zebre v Cardiff Blues 13h00 Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi
Saracens v Leicester Tigers 15h30 Allianz Park
Fri, 02 March 2018
Blues v Chiefs 06h35 Eden Park
Reds v Brumbies 09h00 Suncorp Stadium
Kings v Dragons 17h35 Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
Pool AU
Team P W D L Pts
Rebels 1 1 0 0 5
Brumbies 0 0 0 0 0
Waratahs 0 0 0 0 0
Sunwolves 0 0 0 0 0
Reds 1 0 0 1 0
Pool NZ
Team P W D L Pts
Highlanders 1 1 0 0 4
Blues 1 0 0 1 1
Crusaders 0 0 0 0 0
Hurricanes 0 0 0 0 0
Chiefs 0 0 0 0 0
Pool SA
Team P W D L Pts
Stormers 1 1 0 0 4
Lions 1 1 0 0 4
Sharks 1 0 0 1 1
Bulls 0 0 0 0 0
Jaguares 1 0 0 1 0