Another Blues season has finished short of the playoffs. Where did it go wrong this time?
The round four loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch was a killer for the Blues. They began the season brightly with a big win over the Rebels in Melbourne (with Rieko Ioane scoring a hat-trick), but were on the skids when losing to the Chiefs in Hamilton and then the Highlanders in Auckland. The latter, a 12-16 defeat, could have gone either way. Those twin defeats to New Zealand opposition put them in trouble and they needed to beat the Crusaders at AMI Stadium in order stop the slide. So you can imagine coach Tana Umaga's state of mind when his team let slip a 21-5 lead to lose 33-24. The Crusaders, without Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu and Jack Goodhue, simply ran over the top of the visitors. The New Zealand teams were again a big problem for the Blues - they lost twice to the Highlanders, once to the Crusaders, once to the Hurricanes and once to the Chiefs. Their 16-all draw to the Chiefs at Eden Park in late May was another opportunity wasted.
So, no positives at all in Umaga's second year in charge?
Not exactly. Outside back Rieko Ioane showed time and again what a stunning talent he is, with big brother Akira playing more consistently at loose forward. Halfback Augustine Pulu was brilliant at times and George Moala played well in midfield. In locks Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti they had two hard workers who were perhaps the success story of the season in terms of the pack. Right wing Matt Duffie played so well he had people talking about All Blacks selection and Michael Collins at fullback glued the backline together.
What was the Blues' biggest result of the season?
Not much doubt about this one - their thrilling 22-16 victory over the British and Irish Lions at Eden Park, a win which showed what these players can achieve if they are switched on mentally and physically. Few apart from Rieko Ioane could have scored the Blues' opening try, which owed much to the vision and perfect pass from first-five Stephen Perofeta, starting his first match for the franchise. And the offloads from Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams which combined to send Ihaia West scampering in from 40m were brilliant. West, now on his way to the Hurricanes to play back-up to Beauden Barrett, did pretty well himself to score the match-winning try. Notable mentions in terms of other results go to the 18-12 victory over the Brumbies in Canberra and 40-33 win over the Waratahs in Sydney a week later.
The Blues suffered some close defeats again, but in which were they truly short-changed?
Look no further than the 30-22 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town, a match in which the officials let down the players from both teams, but in particular Umaga's men. Referee Jaco van Heerden, Television match official Shaun Veldsman and the assistant referees Marius van der Westhuizen and Cwengile Jadezweni decided Shaun Treeby's swinging arm to the jaw of Piers Francis, which knocked the Blues No10 unconscious, was only worthy of a penalty, rather than the red card the centre should have been shown. The incident happened five minutes after halftime with the Blues leading 19-10. To add insult to serious injury, Duffie was then shown a red card after van Heerden wrongly gave him two yellows, and the Stormers' two late tries were disputed by the Blues, one for a quick penalty tap not taken from the mark and the second for a clear double movement. It was an astonishingly incompetent performance from the South African match officials.
Who were the Blues' best players?
Pulu, Luatua, Rieko Ioane and Duffie. Pulu was brilliant during his first season at the franchise. Luatua was superb in his final season at the franchise before leaving for Bristol. Ioane, just 20, has pace and power (he is the quickest of the current All Blacks) and looks set for a big future. Duffie was consistently good on the right wing. He is especially good under the high ball but also makes good decisions under pressure. Kudos to unheralded locks Scrafton and Cowley-Tuioti too.
The most disappointing?
Patrick Tuipulotu. His year started with an overturned positive drugs test, which allowed him to train with the squad after he was locked out in accordance with World Rugby's regulations, reached a high of some good early performances for the Blues, and then fell away. In the end Scrafton and Cowley-Tuioti were keeping All Black Tuipulotu on the bench, he was dropped from the squad to play the Lions after turning up late for training, and a sprained ankle kept him out of the final game against the Sunwolves. The 24-year-old lock will be hoping for better things next year.
What's the forecast for next year?
Reasonably positive. Pulu and his Counties teammate Williams will be in their second season with the Blues, with Hurricanes first-five Otere Black in the mix for the No10 jersey along with Stephen Perofeta, a 20-year-old who showed glimpses of magic against the Lions after injuries curtailed his opportunities. The departures of Luatua and prop Charlie Faumuina are big losses for the franchise. Midfielder TJ Faine showed promise and a lot of pace. The key for the Blues next season, as ever, though, will be victories over New Zealand opposition. If they can win even half of those six matches they could make the playoffs next year. Umaga appears to have the game plan, and his players are at least listening to him. Now they just need to put it all together.