OPINION: The Blues' real problems revealed
SUPER RUGBY SPOTLIGHT: Another week, another defeat and yet another search for a solution to the Blues’ never-ending sob story. Scotty Stevenson analyses the Auckland-based franchise.
Well, you can blame the players and the coaches and the administrators as much as you like, but the real problem for the Blues is the very city they call home.
I’m not in the business of excusing poor performances so let’s be clear here: On Friday night at Eden Park, a ten minute spell of criminal-level inattentiveness cost the Blues a victory against a depleted Chiefs side that should have never been allowed to set a new record for the longest undefeated streak against a single opponent in the history of Super Rugby. That is a cold, hard fact and no one in the Blues set-up could, or would, argue with it.
It has become almost inevitable that in the tight moments in New Zealand conference games, the Blues will find a way to come off second best. They have won just once in their last 24 domestic match-ups (which is as niggly a stat as ever laid down on paper) and even though none of their last nine defeats against fellow Kiwi sides have been of the double-digit variety, what does that really matter in a two-horse race?
Here’s the thing, though: there is a pattern of behaviour here that cannot be attributed to bad coaching, or lack of talent, because the Blues suffer from neither. They do not lack for ball carriers or tacklers, or line out jumpers or scrummagers; they do not undertake any less analysis than the opposition, nor can they cry poor when it comes to access to decent facilities or technical expertise. The only thing they are missing is some old-fashioned self-belief, and the reason for that is, unlike the other four clubs in the country, their very environment works against them.
The standard question every season is this: Why do the Blues struggle so much when many Auckland-born and raised players leave Auckland and become lynchpin players in other, more successful franchises? The answer is in the question: they leave Auckland.
Auckland has many admirable qualities, but its roads are as congested as an emphysemic’s lungs which makes getting around the place a pain in the ass. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that on any scale – not just a New Zealand scale – Auckland is also a big place, and Blues players and staff happen to live all over the damn show. You can’t blame them for that, because housing and rental costs are also so monumentally screwy that it would be impossible for them all to live near their central training base, even if any of them wanted to.
Let me tell you why that is a problem. In Dunedin, God Bless it, you don’t have to plan three weeks in advance to catch up with your teammates for coffee. In Wellington, you could Uber from the CBD to the airport for less than the price of a couple of Ponsonby coffees. In Hamilton, you leave your house for training five minutes before the official warm-up, and in Christchurch – a city that could claim to suffer from its own case of shitty traffic, you can find a house so close to Rugby Park that you could kick goals from your own backyard.
The net result is that every other team can afford to build the invisible strands of comradeship that comprise a team’s deep culture. They do so by hanging around after training, by catching up for a cuppa and a chat before heading home, by invariably living in each other’s pockets, playing pick up games of one-on-one, learning about what makes their teammates tick so that when they are down they can press the appropriate buttons to bring them back up. That builds trust, reliance, and a shared belief in success and team work.
You cannot hope to do that when you are rushing away from training in order to beat the rush hour.
I am not about to claim that the Blues don’t have a great team spirit, but how are they supposed to develop the kind of camaraderie that comes from the close connections enjoyed by the other New Zealand clubs? They can’t. They are the victims of the geographic and human realities of the very city they wish to represent, and those that leave are not deserting the Blues, they are searching for something more meaningful than a big city life. That is a paradox that cannot be solved by team talks and trust falls.
Yes, there have been some batshit crazy Blues plays in the last few years, but every team has been guilty of those. What every other team has been able to do is fall back on their collective spirit to find a way to succeed. That collective spirit is the thing that the Blues need most, and yet it will remain the hardest for them to attain.