Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Blues impress in big win

Ma'a Nonu of the Blues kicks the ball through past Nasi Manu of the Highlanders during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.
Ma'a Nonu of the Blues kicks the ball through past Nasi Manu of the Highlanders during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.

BLUES 30
HIGHLANDERS 12

The Blues looked a lot less like the Blues tonight and yet they also looked a lot more like potential playoff contenders.

For the first time in 2014 they nailed the important parts. They got their lineout right. Their scrum was much better, too.

First take: ABs pair add spark to Blues' big win

They were physical and dominant around the tackled ball and uncomplicated when they pushed wide. But most important of all, they were patient and composed.

Those last two components hadn't previously been in evidence. But last night it felt as if the Blues had taken a collective breath, counted to 10 mentally and decided to take a little more time and care with everything they did.

The fact this new found calm and accuracy arrived in the same game Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino made their first starts, is not a coincidence.

Kaino kept his work to the basics: punching a few carries, making his tackles and generally warning people off around the breakdown.

It wasn't the Kaino of old, but it was enough to suggest he can be the Kaino of old.
As for Nonu, he was his usual direct self. He couldn't open up the Highlanders, but he did dent and exhaust them.

He did straighten the Blues attack, get them over the gainline and give them the opportunity to build the phases.

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It might seem a little underwhelming, but that sort of low error, big physical performance in the midfield is invaluable. It was noticeable, too, that Nonu had time to offer a few words of this and that in the ear of young Simon Hickey.

Nonu the supposed troublemaker hasn't come to Auckland. The version that's here is the All Black one - low maintenance, high reward.

As improved as the Blues were, however, they still have a way to go. They can be a potential playoff contender with performances like last night's, but not champions.

Their greater composure and patience was at the cost of some of their dynamism. They couldn't quite raise the tempo the way they would have liked and the final quarter was hard going.

It felt like seeing a good looking pavlova come out of the oven in great shape only to collapse and look decidedly amateur.

If the Blues want to truly still be in the hunt come July, they need to dig in for 80 minutes and get more from their bench.

They are also going to have to think long and hard what they are going to do with Benji Marshall. He was given a near 30-minute stretch at fullback where he appeared massively uncofortable with his new code.

The big worry with that was it was his general play rather than specific positioning or understanding that was out of sorts.

Marshall's lateral attacking lines were legend in league: almost laughably bad in union. He had one run from a kick retrieval that saw him head due East, only to veer due South and then throw the ball behind everyone. He appeared to also have a near air shot with a kick ahead and everyone knows he's a better player than that.

He needs more time on the paddock and yet when he plays like that...

It was a pity Marshall was so at seas as the Blues really needed him to make some kind of impact in that last 20 minutes.

While they had the game well under control and had significantly more direction and understanding than in previous weeks, they were missing a touch of genius.

The Highlanders flooded the midfield with defenders as soon as the ball became available to the Blues at the back of the ruck.

They knew where the attack would come and for the most part they were right.. The Blues ran into the heavy traffic time and time again, with a view to executing the quick recycle and eventually finding space.

It didn't quite work out like that for them. They Highlanders wrapped them up and slowed them down and the space wouldn't open up.

It required the Blues to break from their pattern to score their first two tries. The first was about the luckiest there will be all season: Bryn Hall found himself almost at first-five from a scrum and then drilled a low, hard kick that goodness knows where it would have gone had it not been almost caught by Lima Sopoaga.

It popped up ever so neatly for the advancing George Moala and he cantered over. It was Hall, this time by design, who created the second when he dummied from a lineout and charged to within a metre before Ma'a Nonu picked up and crashed over.

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Blues 30 (G. Moala, M. Nonu, C. Piutau tries; S. Hickey 3 cons, 3 pens)
Highlanders 12 (L. Sopoaga 4 pens)

- Herald on Sunday

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