Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

How Tana Umaga is trying to inspire the Blues

Head coach Tana Umaga of the Blues looks on during a training session. Photo / Getty
Head coach Tana Umaga of the Blues looks on during a training session. Photo / Getty

The all-conquering Blues team of 1996 have been on the minds of Tana Umaga's outfit this week.

It is 20 years since the team coached by Graham Henry beat the Sharks at Eden Park in the inaugural Super 12 final, and Umaga's men face the same opposition tomorrow.

They have been talked about because of the anniversary of their success - which they repeated a year later with a grand final victory over the Brumbies - but also the way they achieved it.

With players such as Eroni Clarke, Craig Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick and Michael Jones, they were a mentally and physically tough team who never faced a deficit they felt they couldn't overhaul, and how Umaga would like to see some of that attitude a week after his team put in what he described as a "benchmark" performance in their defeat to the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend.

Herald Rugby Match Centre - Blues v Sharks

His team's playoff chances are hanging by a thread only seven rounds into the competition and it's getting to the stage where even if the Blues beat the Sharks and the Rebels next weekend before their trip to South Africa, and enjoy a good finish to the round-robin, they are relying on some of the other New Zealand teams to trip over.

"I don't think it's over yet," Umaga said of his playoff hopes. "We're focusing on ourselves at the moment. We've had a pretty tough early start - I think we've played the most Kiwi teams so far, so we've seen it's a pretty tough competition.

"We've just got to kick on and grow from last week. Good sides are consistent and grow from week to week, that's where we've got to get to.

"It's getting to that time of the season where we need to keep in contact with the teams above us."

He is right about the draw. The Blues played the four other New Zealand teams in the first seven rounds - beating the Highlanders and losing to the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs.

Those four New Zealand teams are among the best in the competition, bad news for the bottom-placed Blues in this conference format. The top New Zealand conference team, currently the Chiefs, are guaranteed a playoff place, so theoretically playing fewer Kiwi teams from here on will help the Blues.

Umaga's men, who face the Crusaders and Hurricanes again in late May and early July, are expecting a kick-first mentality from the Sharks - loose forward Jerome Kaino was one of many players putting in extra catching practice this week.

But while the Durban-based team will probably use different tactics to the free-running Chiefs, the Blues are unlikely to stray too far from an attacking mindset which almost got them over the line in Hamilton.

"We have to make sure we adapt and adjust, but we don't want to go away from something that worked so well for us," Umaga said. "It's just little tweaks ... understanding where that space is and how to get to that space.

"We are trending up, we've improved. And that's all we can ask for, to keep moving forward."

Fullback Lolagi Visinia is one of two changes to Umaga's starting line-up due to his ability under the high ball, with flanker Blake Gibson - out for two months due to a broken thumb - replaced by Tanerau Latimer, should the former Chiefs player come through the week with no recurrence of his calf problem.

Visinia replaces Melani Nanai, who scored a sharp solo try in Hamilton.

- NZ Herald

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