Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Umaga wants Blues to be on top of their game early on

Tana Umaga at the announcement for the Blues coaching staff for the 2016 season at Alexandra Park. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Tana Umaga at the announcement for the Blues coaching staff for the 2016 season at Alexandra Park. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Tana Umaga doesn't give much away as he sits in the coaches' box.

The cameras, though, invariably turn to him late in matches because - apart from the round two match against the Crusaders in Christchurch when they were second best all night - the Blues have made the close finish into an art form this season, and there's nothing like the prospect of a nervous-looking coach to pique the interest of a television director.

Umaga's tenure began with a 33-31 victory over the Highlanders at Eden Park, and apart from the 28-13 defeat to the Crusaders every match since has been close and none more so than the draw against the Reds at Suncorp Stadium when Ihaia West was instructed to kick a penalty after the final hooter.

They have lost by not many against the Hurricanes and Chiefs and won by similar margins against the Jaguares and Sharks, and, as they prepare for the Rebels at Eden Park today, a good start is crucial to take the game away from the Aussie visitors and prevent more late-match nervousness.

"It's imperative," Umaga said. "We're very good at finishing when games are on the line. We're desperate - so how do we get that at the start? We're trying to get that here at training, that's where it starts for us, doing the little things well and making sure we're on top of ourselves in terms of preparation.

"When you're behind and trailing there's only one way you can go so it keeps it pretty simple. But at the start of the game you're trying to do 1000 things. It's about our young group understanding we just have to go through that process of building into the game and earning the right to do what we want to do."

In other words, don't simply spread the ball to the wings and expect them to make something out of nothing. There will be an emphasis on loose forwards Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua and Tanerau Latimer to provide a ball-carrying threat around the breakdown but it's important, too, that first-five Ihaia West provides one himself by running on to the ball, rather than simply shifting it to Piers Francis or George Moala.

The Blues are competition leaders in terms of retaining the ball - where they fall down is turning their possession into points.

It's something James Parsons, who has retained the captaincy despite the return of Kaino, alluded to when he talked about the pack setting a good platform in terms of set piece, but also being more direct.

Centre Moala, back in the starting team following Rene Ranger's knee injury, has the ability to set the standard here and is one of the team's biggest threats close to the line. A similarly ruthless attitude must be met by his teammates.

"It's been a huge focus for us," Parsons said of the Blues' starts. "We know we are making most of our errors in the first 40 minutes, which puts us behind the eight ball and probably gives us too much to do in the second 40."

- NZ Herald

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