Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Struggling Blues may well be best of the rest

The prospect of four NZ teams making the last eight is real and that is why the current position of the Blues may be a little misleading. Photo / Getty Images
The prospect of four NZ teams making the last eight is real and that is why the current position of the Blues may be a little misleading. Photo / Getty Images

Languishing at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference, the Blues appear to be in yet another death roll, hopelessly off the pace.

But as this season unwinds, it's beginning to look like the three best teams in the competition are the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes with the Highlanders not so far behind.

Being fifth in the New Zealand Conference is not necessarily evidence that the Blues are in the midst of a disastrous campaign. It's confirmation they don't have the qualities of the best New Zealand sides or the same ability to produce commanding, dominant rugby, but maybe they aren't so far off the rest of the competition.

It's intriguing to note that while they play the top ranked Australian side tomorrow at Eden Park, the Blues are short-odds favourites to beat the Rebels. And, if the exercise was repeated to consider what the odds would be against the other teams outside of New Zealand, the Blues would most likely be favourites in them all.

The next five weeks will be the time to start making judgment on that. The Blues face the Rebels, Kings, Lions, Force and Crusaders before the June test window and if they are going to retain any hope of making the playoffs, they will need to pick up points in this stretch.

"We are in a tough conference aren't we," said Blues coach Tana Umaga. "Every week is difficult for us but I suppose what we feel is that we are not out of it even though we are fifth in New Zealand.

"The wider view is that we still believe we have a wider opportunity and this next five weeks will make or break us in terms of the tournament itself and where we want to end up. There is no doubt about that."

Sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth-ranked team is arguably about the best the Blues can hope for.

As well as they competed against the Chiefs a few weeks back, the Blues aren't in the same league. The Chiefs are scoring tries at an unprecedented rate and finding ways to dig in and scrape through in those games where they don't quite have their act together.

The Crusaders are playing equally impressive attacking football and most astute observers would see one of these two as the most likely eventual champions. Both are playing with conviction that says they have absolute confidence in each other and more importantly, in their coaching staff and gameplan.

The Hurricanes have been building towards being as effective as they were in last year's tournament but face a tough two weeks in South Africa. If they can come home with two wins, they will be in the thick of it.

Two consecutive defeats have forced a few questions to be asked about the Highlanders. But they have depth of character and personnel and have shown a remarkable resilience in the past which would be silly to believe is no longer there.

The prospect of four New Zealand teams making the last eight is real and that is why the current position of the Blues may be a little misleading.

- NZ Herald

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