Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Blues still in strife with numbers that matter

Some of the feelgood factor is returning to the Blues, and the statistics show they are improving, but the points table holds the numbers that really matter. Photo / Getty Images
Some of the feelgood factor is returning to the Blues, and the statistics show they are improving, but the points table holds the numbers that really matter. Photo / Getty Images

Some of the feelgood factor is returning to the Blues, and the statistics show they are improving, but the points table holds the numbers that really matter.

On that measure, Tana Umaga's men appear unlikely to make the playoffs this season.

A victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton last Friday, rather than a 29-23 defeat, would have helped their chances hugely given they would have deprived their near neighbours of points while boosting their own total.

Wins over your conference rivals are more important than ever this season given the fewer derby matches on offer, one of the changes brought about for 2016 along with an extended - and clearly flawed - 18-team competition.

The Blues, with two wins, three losses and one draw, lie at the bottom of the New Zealand conference on 12 competition points. The Chiefs, who will not add to their tally this weekend due to their bye, are on 29, the Highlanders are on 23, the Crusaders 22 and Hurricanes 20.

Those four New Zealand teams are in the playoff positions, a convoluted scenario in which the top teams of the four conferences (currently the Chiefs, Brumbies, Stormers and Lions) are guaranteed a place in the finals, along with the next top three teams from the Australasian group and one from the South African group (currently the Bulls).

Umaga's team played with accuracy and ambition against the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium, only to lose their lead through Brodie Retallick's late converted try. They lead the statistical standings in several areas, including time in possession, and breakdown efficiency, and will fancy their chances of picking up wins over the next two weeks at Eden Park against the Sharks and Rebels.

There are no guarantees obviously, but even should they win those, their tour of South Africa, where they play the Kings and Lions, as well as the Force in Perth on the way home, should put the brakes on any excitement because the fact is they haven't won a competition game away from Auckland in two years.

Of their remaining nine games, five are at Eden Park, including one against the Crusaders. The Blues' other New Zealand conference match is in Wellington against the Hurricanes, to whom they lost 23-19 in round three.

A major problem for the Blues, apart from their inability to close out matches, especially away, is that the rest of the New Zealand conference is playing so well and don't look likely to falter.

The good news for the Blues is they appear to have their spirit back, and have some superb young talent in loose forward Blake Gibson, Akira and Rieko Ioane. Unfortunately for the Blues, the Ioanes - fitness permitting, will soon move back to Gordon Tietjens' New Zealand sevens squad - while Gibson is unlikely to see a playoffs game, at least not this year.

On the up

• Ball control: The Blues lead the competition in ruck efficiency (96 per cent) and time in possession (17.54mins per match on average).

• Defensive linchpin: The 20-year-old Blake Gibson has made the second highest number of tackles this season with 84 (behind Matt Hodgson's 103 for the Force).

• Tackle breaker: Akira Ioane beat nine defenders against the Chiefs - the highest for the round - despite playing only the second half.

- NZ Herald

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