Blues v Sharks Game Reflects on Super Rugby History

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Every match has a certain amount of significance. A players first, their 50th or 100th match is certainly memorable for the individual. Any teams opening match of the season means a lot to players and supporters, or in this weekends case, a franchise acknowledging it’s first championship winning side as the same two 1996 final teams face each other this Saturday night. A feat like that should bear some significance and to that, the Blues Super Rugby franchise will take time before kickoff to honour them before this important Round eight match.

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The Auckland Blues rugby team celebrate victory in the final of Super Rugby 1996, over the Natal Sharks at Eden Park , May 27, 1996

Blues v Sharks Game Reflects on Super Rugby History

Super 12, as it was back then, had just been launched to much fanfare and high attendance. The professional age had dawned, although sides were still extremely provincial. In reality, many of the 12 competing sides were simply their representative sides re-named, and the Natal team was an example of that ‘traditional meeting the modern age’. A fine side then; as they are today, back in 1996 they had reached this match by beating Queensland away from home to qualify and both sides felt like they were a part of something that had never been seen in the Southern Hemisphere. On Saturday, before the main attraction, reflecting on that occasion is worthy of celebration.

The franchise will also take time to pay their respects to former player Kurtis Haiu (pictured) who this week succumbed to illness that took the former Blues players life far too soon.He represented the Blues 53 times from 2006-2011 and a moments silence will be taken pre-match in respect for his contribution to the side. With respect for his family and former team mates, it puts a human face on the game we all love. The former lock was aged just 32.

For this seasons competition, now in it’s third decade, the memory of some classic encounters was enjoyed by all the players involved today–many were still in junior rugby but all will say the same, that the first championship for the Blues team specifically, is a lasting memory. Saturday night will see former team members joining fans to reflect back on the match (and a Blues era) that saw the home side win that first ever final 45-21. The same venue will host these sides again but with roles somewhat reversed–the Sharks are near the top of their South African conference as the New Zealand (NZ) team sits last out of the NZ franchises.

Fans can expect two things this weekend: that the trailblazing players of their day will receive a huge round of applause, a nostalgic video homage will be played that will relive those halcyon days and then the fireworks will transfer onto the field as the 2016 sides are both at tipping points in their seasons. This clash has a resonance to it, it also has a big question mark over it–where is the master plan that Tana Umaga hoped to instigate here with the Blues? and how will this trip to NZ fair for the team from Natal?

‘Better than in 1996’ the latter will hope for. On that day (yes, we did once play rugby before dinner time) Natal were outplayed six tries to two; with tries worth just the five points remember, as Jonah Lomu continued to astound the world with his strength and ferocious speed. It was a clear victory 45-21. Andrew Blowers had a ball of a time, scoring twice while Lomu (RIP) and Carlos Spencer showed their natural flair and abilities under Graham Henry’s reign.

By Saturday night, the Sharks may assume they have a much better opportunity this time, as the projected ‘winning formula’ brought to the Auckland franchise by the former Toulon and Counties-Manukau coach Umaga, has not played out [so far] as fans and the organisation had hoped for. Glimpses of winning ways opened the calendar with victory over the current Champion Highlanders, but soon they were playing to type, with selection changes and a lack of offence the main issues of today as they were in the last few years.

Let us compare the seasons so far:

BLUES: Round One – Win v Highlanders | Two – Loss v Crusaders | Three – Loss v Hurricanes | Four – Draw v Reds | BYE | Six – Win v Jaguares | Seven – Loss v Chiefs (2-4)

SHARKS: Round One – Win v Kings | Two – Win v Jaguares | Three – Win v Stormers (away) | Four – Loss v Bulls | Five – Loss v Crusaders | BYE | Seven – Loss v Lions (3-3)

Intra-conference games are going to count for much more for every NZ team. Visitors must be defeated to gain maximum points on offer as derby games will count for just 40% of competition points, so any home game should be to your advantage. Home field statistics for this season do not look good for either side: 33% for the hosts and 50% for their guests, so not exceptional and the Sharks are the only one who have won away from home.

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Comparisons will only go so far. It would be difficult to match a player like Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira against Sam Pratley man-for-man, but if a highly motivated Blues team emerges from the Eden Park changing rooms after benefiting from captured energy from the thousands of fans expected and the inspiration from former players, a man like Pratley could have a ‘blinder’. That mental factor could be the unknown on Saturday night for both sides as each capable of anything, but each unpredictable too.

Generously, sports betting odds are a shallow $1.50 for the home side, while the Sharks are at $2.75 in NZ (in South Africa they have reached over $3.00 to win) so the odds maybe lying on the classic ‘home field advantage’.

Following form is one thing, but team dynamic is immeasurable–can Gary Gold bring his side together straight away after their long travel schedule? They have lost their last few games, so does the visiting team require a supportive word? or to have the telephone book thrown at them? Gold is certainly a more ‘direct’ man than quietly spoken Umaga is. Gold’s emphasis is on solid structures which is vastly different to the Umaga play book. The ex-All Black captain was direct on the field himself, but his handling of players is now more encompassing. He would rather stand back, give them ‘ground rules’and then believe they can use their instincts and fundamentals as their moorings–recently, some of his men have been heading in a good direction until that loss to the Canes upset their pathway.

Single matches and results can draw a line under any season. Coaches deal in stages or groups of matches today, so the Canes loss followed by that frustrating draw in Brisbane was a tough stage for the Blues. They then had to sit around for a Bye round, measuring players fitness and demanding more from the frustrated attack and inconsistent kicking. Re-focused, they walked away from Albany with four points after subduing a keen Jaguares team and last week [really] made a good match out of a loss. Not a close loss though, the final penalty seemed to gloss over a gulf between the neighbouring teams as a Chiefs are on fire at the top-of-the-table while the Auckland side still sputter. To gain a win this week, it will be a hard fight against their old foes.

A proud history exists here and it really must be a ‘pressure cooker’ stage in both teams calendars. The Sharks have recent history on their side, as they haven’t lost to the Blues in their last 10 matches. The Sharks also carry a better away record to Eden Park than that of the 1996 first ever final–they have won their last four away matches to Eden Park and while the home side will stand tall as they salute their Champion side, the Sharks can too look back with pride on their pioneering side.

That side accomplished much to reach the final. Coached by Ian McIntosh, they had beaten some of the best in Africa and Australia, before encountering a Blues machine with a wealth of talent in it. In the same year when the All Blacks would go on the claim a series victory over South Africa, in Africa. Two defining men on the park then were leaders Gary Teichmann of Natal and his opposite, Zinzan Brook. Uncompromising players, both had similar roles but very with different qualities. Teichmann would run all day and then chase another tackle one more time, whereas Brook could go from defence to a reverse back-hand pass to open up a crack in the opposition. Chalk and cheese.

Yes, ex-players will be celebrated for their first ever Super Rugby championship victory. Men like Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown and Robin Brook all remembered with fondness. Their accomplishment will never be forgotten in this proud rugby region and for today’s player, it is something to attain to. Both Jerome Kaino and Umaga each spoke well this week of their respect of that record. “They were so professional then” said Umaga. “It’s like you’re playing a Test match every time you’d play against them” (Umaga played for the Chiefs and for the Hurricanes franchises)

Players must go out on Saturday to write their own though, and Kaino has to bring the best out of his side; through his actions naturally, but in bringing them together to ensure their guests do not get their ‘fins up’. In NZ, that is synonymous with the Tasman Mako’s side but back in Natal, the surf is just as good as the Auckland’s west coast beaches and they would love nothing better than ‘dropping in and stealing a wave’ to spoil the home town party.

It will be another great step in both teams histories. The Sharks have never won the Championship, and will find it hard going from here [with just 16 competition points] If they cannot stay equal within their own conference/group, then this trip could take its toll. They have a better chance than their opponents though, where a Blues side in development will gain more and (possibly) lose less than the Sharks might in winning. That’s a difficult reality to swallow, not many Blues fans will want to face the truth that they may not collect many wins in local derby games so this prospect of a home match against a team not in winning form themselves, is the best opportunity they will have.

Winning this weekend is the primary goal for both, it’s Rugby remember. Each team must go out there with that at the forefront of their thinking. The Blues will walk out a little bit ‘prouder’ to reflect on their honoured alumni but if they do not focus immediately on the Sharks, then modern players like Willie le Roux, Philip van der Walt and captain Mtawarira could carry away an 11 game winning record.

Former players like Michael Jones, Craig Dowd and Joeli Vidiri will want this Blues Super Rugby generation to match their commitment and professionalism. Team mate Kurtis Haiu will be honoured for his bravery in the face of life threatening illness which had a big impact on many in this current group. Will this motivation lead the Blues of 2016 to match the feats of their earlier side?

They certainly have the potential to–for this young team though, it might just be that it is too soon to really tell.

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* Blues 1996 winning team photo courtesy of PHOTOSPORT NZ. 

“Main photo credit”