Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Bloody-mindedness the missing quality

Lack of top class first-five aside, team needs to dig deeper and not give up when going gets tough

The Blues' 13-match away game losing streak will give head coach John Kirwan plenty to work on for the remainder of the season. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Blues' 13-match away game losing streak will give head coach John Kirwan plenty to work on for the remainder of the season. Photo / Richard Robinson

If the recent defeat to the Chiefs marked the death knell for the Blues' season, the haemorrhaging started last year.

That's when the shocking form on the road took hold, a run now at 13 matches and showing no sign of stopping. Losing their final six matches of the season after a promising start did for John Kirwan's team last year; this season the challenge will be to keep fighting when there could well be little to play for.

The Blues have five matches remaining, all difficult ones. They face the Sharks, Hurricanes, Force, Crusaders and Chiefs in the run-in. The Force and Crusaders are away, the Sharks match at North Harbour Stadium. The Hurricanes and Chiefs will put their unbeaten Eden Park record this season under severe scrutiny.

So, where did it all go wrong this time? Herald columnist and former All Blacks halfback Justin Marshall has suggested the lack of an attacking first-five is to blame, plus a lack of leadership among the backline, Ma'a Nonu apart.

He's right, but he could probably include another, less obvious trait - good old-fashioned bloody-mindedness.

The Blues were in a muddle in deciding who to play at No 10 early on, the Benji Marshall saga serving to cloud the waters further. They had three in the mix - Marshall, Chris Noakes and Baden Kerr, the latter dropping out due to a broken hand and the former due to his lack of experience at leading a rugby backline.

Noakes was quickly discarded after the first game - a defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin which bizarrely mirrored last year's fixture in that the Blues didn't decide to start playing until the second half.

Youngster Simon Hickey was then thrown the reins, his good form in pre-season leading to a rapid promotion for the wider training group player. After a good debut at home against the Crusaders, Kirwan kept faith in him until the youngster ran into a steep learning curve in the form of the Brumbies in Canberra, a wet night in which he was terrorised by second-five Pat McCabe.

Noakes was given another go against the Hurricanes, suffered concussion, and it was back to Hickey again for promising victories over the Waratahs and Reds and then of course the lacklustre defeat to the Chiefs in New Plymouth.

Hickey, 20, who will captain New Zealand at next month's World Championships, has a big future. He is an excellent goalkicker with a very good temperament but lacks a bit of X-factor on attack which means defences drift off him and on to the bigger Blues' firepower. That puts a lot of pressure on Nonu, who dealt with it well against the Waratahs and Reds but looked weighed down by it against the Chiefs.

What else? The Blues' starts to matches were poor until they returned from South Africa and appeared to shut the Cheetahs out only to allow the visitors a glimpse of victory at the end. Their set piece was wobbly at times - the scrum poor but improving, again following their return from South Africa.

Probably the main thing missing, though, was that intangible substance which makes teams such as the Chiefs better than the sum of their parts. On paper the Blues are an excellent team, with an All Black-laden forward pack and a backline which includes some of the most exciting players in the competition.

Grit and determination. The Chiefs have it, so have the Crusaders - that's what got them past the Stormers in Christchurch in what was probably a pivotal moment for them. The Hurricanes and Highlanders are finding it. The Blues, though, do not. When the going gets tough - usually away from home - they succumb too easily and that must be high on Kirwan's priority list for next year. That, and finding an answer to what is becoming a position of real weakness at the franchise - a first-five they can win a championship with.

Kirwan the coach: pros and cons

Open the file on Sir John Kirwan and both sides of the ledger carry strong arguments about his continued coaching association with the Blues.

At the official level, that alliance was extended into 2015 as the Blues use a mix of belief and hope that JK will lead the franchise out of the fog which has enveloped them.

In his days on the wing for the All Blacks, Kirwan carried the "St John" nickname because of his playing aura, but those powers have not translated fully to the Super Rugby coaching arena. Here's a look at the accounts.

For

Kirwan is as personable as anyone in the coaching world, he gives plenty of himself and his time to the holistic welfare of the franchise.

• He carries his passionate energy through his work and wants to engage with the wider Auckland region and supporters.

• He has coached Italy and Japan and understands the elements of solidarity needed to deal with stronger opponents. JK's work ethic is strong and he is open to change.

• Ma'a Nonu has responded to the Blues' influences after a number of modest campaigns with other franchises and Jerome Kaino has been a big contributor.

• Luke Braid has been a strong choice at leader whose performances make the rest believe in what he says.

• There have been gutsy choices like the elevation of Simon Hickey, Patrick Tuipulotu and demotion of Steven Luatua.

Against

• The Blues' record under Kirwan is played 27, won 11, lost 16 with just one victory, in their first game last year, away from home.

• Stacks of talent on the roster and enough coaching experience should mix to deliver more but there is still a splutter in that blend.

• Signing Benji Marshall and putting him into Super 15 combat without any development was a distraction. Quality signings are imperative for 2015.

• Kirwan's mantra has been about a three-year project, a public relations theme his employers swallowed. Strong organisations develop far quicker.

• Some selections have been mysterious especially in JK's old role. Tevita Li came from nowhere and disappeared, Lolani Visinia was ignored until he performed in a development match, Frank Halai's form has spluttered.

- APNZ

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 30 Aug 2014 07:57:59 Processing Time: 566ms