2022 Blues’ winning streak continues, Hurricanes fall further downward

2022 Blues' winning streak continues, Hurricanes fall further downward
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The news is good up in Auckland. With the 2022 Blues’ winning streak continuing, it all looks rosy for the three-times Champions. News is not so good for supporters of the Wellington side, with the Hurricanes falling further downward in the standings, after a clumsy final minute decision costs them big time.

Differing results sure, yet the fortunes of the franchises have never looked so opposite. It could reflect the heady days of 2015 and 2016, when the ‘Canes were the very best in Super Rugby while the Blues found it hard [since 2003] to make a Grand Final. Now the turnaround is obvious for most, with the wildly improved confidence of the Blues team impressing the majority.

Handing the Chiefs a 0-25 shellacking, it was the first time in over 27 years where the Waikato side was held scoreless. An incredible effort, the team traveled to Hamilton and held their hosts by the scruff of the neck. Even with multiple Yellow cards and several disallowed try attempts from the home side, the Blues look to be the one franchise that could make the next round of Super Rugby Pacific more memorable than ever.

Crusaders v Blues – Friday, April 15. Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch

The upcoming match will be either, put the brakes on a sequence of six consecutive wins. Or, they charge into Christchurch and steal the treats on a sweet Good Friday for fans of the team.

Speaking last Saturday night of the Blues’ winning streak, head coach Leon MacDonald was glowing in his praise. “I have been really proud of a few performances – obviously winning the [Trans-Tasman] final last year,” MacDonald said [referring to the abridged 2021 Super Rugby competition]. “There was a win over in Cape Town against a really strong Stormers team [in 2020], and this would probably top them both, just in terms of the quality of the opposition and coming off three games last week.

“To be able to turn around with that sort of energy on the park makes me hugely proud and not just the players [on the field]. There was a whole squad that contributed to that game”. A great point, as the internal pressure of needing to play an extra midweek game could well have been used as an excuse in any loss – now it can be shown as a strength of the whole team.

Mind you, the trip to Canterbury has not lately heralded many victories for visiting sides. And while Scott Robertson may not be as vocally in praise of his side, the undoubted self confidence always bubbles to the surface when the colours are Red & Black vs Blue & White (in any competition).

2022 Blues’ winning streak continues

Winning is one thing. The Crusaders are also winning, yet while their game management is a tremendous asset, being able to pile on the points (like below) brings fans back to the stands. And New Zealand Rugby needs more of this in 2022.

The entertainment factor is only one element that has some pointing at the Blues’ winning streak as proof they have vastly improved under MacDonald and the current group. They are a good mixture of locals and some quality imports. Even if the focus tends to be on Beauden Barrett often, his input has only been apparent in a third of their wins to date. Stephen Perofeta has grown greatly, since his 2021 domestic season with Taranaki.

It highlights the qualities of senior leaders, like captain Dalton Papali’i, Rieko Ioane, Josh Goodhue, and Sam Nock. The skipper raised 50 caps for his ‘club’ and one of his deputies was adamant when speaking with Stuff Sport, that the streak is just one part of the positive feeling in the camp. “In the past we’ve probably doubted our ability [to defeat the Crusaders], but having a good win like that is going to be great for our confidence,” said Goodhue.

“We don’t have to do anything special. If we can play well in our systems and work as a team, as a pack, we’ll get the job done.”

The other factor that points to Round 9 fixtures as being season-defining, is the track record. No Blues side has beaten the Crusaders since 2014, and the franchise has not won in Christchurch since 2004. Back then, stars like Carlos Spencer had enjoyed the return of the ‘Great Redeemer’ Sir Graham Henry. In that era, they raised the Blues colours high over every other Super Rugby team.

In 2022, the format is very different, and the challenge that is playing all their local derby matches to start with, may well be the trajectory where the Blues rediscover their belief to win down in ‘enemy territory’.

This Friday is likely to be a huge contest. Crusaders v Blues games naturally are set up for greatness though, even as too many recently end with Blues disappointment. So what makes this season any different? It seems that the visiting team’s patience has been defined. Proved multiple times last Saturday against a Chiefs side that beat the Crusaders in Christchurch. A real contest awaits, as it has been since the opening game of the 2022 season.

Looking back, giving away the opening game to the Hurricanes in Wellington 33-32 would have demoralized many teams’ ambitions. So for this side to repair their game to the point where – even with the Covid enforced Queenstown bubbles, postponements and rescheduled games- they are now primed to be a legitimate threat to the formidable Crusaders on Good Friday evening.

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Word of caution: the Blues’ winning streak is certainly the most impressive of the NZ conference sides. They have the scoring ability of Mark Talea, the burst of speed from Hoskins Sotutu, and the rugby-brains of import (and former Crusader) Luke Romano. Those qualities must be weighed against injury to new recruit Roger Tuivasa-Shek, and suspension to Caleb Clarke. All factors that could interrupt the continuum that Leon MacDonald has created.

Positive momentum that might have them traveling to Melbourne for Anzac weekend as the table-topping Kiwi team, ready for any challenge from their Australian competition.

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Falling to pieces, Hurricanes blow chance to correct their course

On the other hand, there are the Hurricanes. Somewhat struggling at the moment, losing many matches by less than 12 points since their last victory against the Highlanders. Single point defeats have been especially hard for fans to take.

The choices made in the last minutes of the match against the Crusaders in Wellington in particular, added to the displeasure of rugby observers. The majority would have accepted a place kick option in the final play of the game. No, the Hurricanes management absurdly ran on to the field to hand-deliver the message “kick for the corner”.

Ardie Savea accepted the lineout yet some fiercely contested ball saw the cover defence of the visiting team obstruct its release. As the referee blew full time, ‘Canes players all voiced their concern of interference yet, like their season, they received no assistance.

Savea commented post match, “As a leader I like to put pressure on, and demand the officials are doing everything they can to get these calls right,” Savea said. “We get an apology the next week, but it’s too late. Without saying anything disrespectful, I’d just love the officials to demand better.” [as of this moment, no apology has been forthcoming].

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So is it the polar opposite of the Blues form peak. In a way it is yet although in any team sport, the end result comes down to a combined effort. Some decisions should be questioned. A call or judgement goes the wrong way yet considering how tight the game was, they did have the Crusaders under immense pressure. And taking the positives is what head coach Jason Holland and his troops must do.

This week, they enter a formidable segment of the year. Starting with the rescheduled midweek match against Moana Pasifika – the team who claimed their first and only win in Super Rugby Pacific against the ‘Canes. So there is history here, and you know that players who were involved in that week six clash want a chance to avenge that result. However, it is a ‘banana skin’ game for some. What is going for the home side though is, home support.

Up in Auckland, the Moana Pasifika men earned victory that deserved to be publically applauded. In an empty stadium; fantastic as it was, it lacked the energy of screaming spectators. “The boys have learned a lot from that, and we have talked again about how we want to play. It’s a pretty vital game for us, so we’re looking forward to it.” Holland said having crowds back had returned some normality to rugby. “It’s a different world. Footy’s a different game when you’ve got people there. Let’s hope that continues. Our crowd were awesome [on Saturday],” he told media.

So what is needed? Do the right things, make the right decisions on Tuesday and then again on Saturday, this rescheduled Round 7 fixture should add some credit to their account. Yes, they would be still in the bottom six – except, that is at least getting ahead of the downward spiral. But be sure of one thing, the ‘Canes got their reality check last Saturday. It should have given them the wake-up call they certainly needed.

 

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