Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: A break for bruised Blues

The franchise has a week off to fix the walking wounded and find form. Gregor Paul analyses their work so far.

The return of Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu has been a plus. Photo / Getty Images
The return of Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu has been a plus. Photo / Getty Images

The Good

1. Instinctive Attack

The Blues have averaged 27 points a game and 3.4 tries. The bulk of those have been created on the back of instinctive and opportunistic decision-making and skill execution. Give the Blues space and they use it well - they have players with the pace and power to feed off each other and finish half chances.

2. Fortress Eden Park

They are slowly turning into a fortress team - intimidating and confident when they play at Eden Park. In three home games this year they have picked up 14 points and if they can continue at that rate, there is another 25 points for them to be banked.

Last year 46 points (taking away the eight points that were awarded for the two byes) was enough to make the playoffs. Over the next eight weeks they have a run of home games mixed with North Island derbies.

3. The Kaino-Nonu Impact

The influence of these two senior All Blacks has not yet fully permeated through the squad. Both look fit and determined to lift standards at training and on the field and, with a few games behind them now, they will both start to be more influential with their ball carrying and explosive defence in key areas of the field. These two can inspire and lead by example - and ignite the Blues into a higher tempo game.

4. Staying in Touch

Despite the fact they have lost four games, the Blues, with 16 points, haven't lost touch with either the Conference-leading Chiefs (they were sitting on 17 points overnight) or the playoff group.

The Bad

1. Tactical Consistency

They were tactically naive in Canberra - a problem that has surfaced in several other games. Against the Brumbies, the Blues got sucked into playing force-back and they lost ... big time. They didn't have the length to match the likes of Nic White or Jessie Mogg and made the mistake of spending 60 minutes kicking from deep, only to then predictably try to run in the final quarter which is exactly what the Brumbies expected. The bigger question in all this is: have the Blues settled on a style of rugby they want to play each week and how much flexibility do they have to adapt it to their opponent and the conditions?

2. Discipline

The Blues felt they were unfairly treated by referees last year, moaned about it, developed a bad reputation and therefore continued to be poorly treated. They wanted to break that vicious cycle this year but haven't.

They have conceded an average of 12.4 penalties a game - the fourth highest in the competition and have a yellow card average of 0.6 per game which is the third highest.

3. Mental Approach

Too often this season the Blues have appeared reactive rather than proactive. In their first three games, they fell a long way behind on the scoreboard only to mount a late charge. Only once - against the Highlanders at Eden Park - have they started with the attitude of owning the game and dominating their opponent.

4. Away Form

It's not just the fact they have lost all four away games this year that is a concern, it has been the lack of quality, energy and dynamism around those performances. They haven't looked remotely like winning away from Eden Park. It's almost as if they are resigned to the outcome and go immediately into damage-limitation mode. It's incredible but the Blues haven't won away since they beat the Hurricanes in the opening game of 2013.

The Work-ons

1. Solve the Selection Puzzle

Having tinkered and juggled to create competition, coach John Kirwan surely now has a clear picture of his strongest starting XV. Consistency of selection is now key to the Blues' season. It's time for combinations to be allowed to develop and, in that regard, the loose trio looks most potent with Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid and Steven Luatua starting. The Bryn Hall-Simon Hickey inside pairing has a long future and Francis Saili and Ma'a Nonu have a chance to work together in the midfield. George Moala, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau are the back three with the best mix of skills and Tony Woodcock, James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina are the most formidable front-row.

2. Higher Tempo

The Blues play best when they are building momentum with ball in hand, to create width and tempo. To do that, they need to recycle quickly. So far, they have been expert at protecting the ball - conceding the lowest turnovers per game - but it hasn't been quality possession. Slow ball is a killer for them. They need to fix that.

3. Set Piece

The scrum and lineout have been poor, especially the former. But against the Brumbies, everything suddenly clicked and, had the referee had the first clue, the Blues would have been rewarded for their power and dominance. The scrum can become a weapon not a liability. The lineout has a 79 per cent success rate when needs to be operating at 90 per cent. The arrival of Hayden Triggs, working with Luatua and Kaino should give them more options and higher returns.

- Herald on Sunday

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