Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Blues side have come a long way

There was nothing tired about the way the Blues defended against the Crusaders last night, however. Photo / Getty Images
There was nothing tired about the way the Blues defended against the Crusaders last night, however. Photo / Getty Images

The Blues, according to coach Tana Umaga, were tired this week.

They were yawning in team meetings after their travel from Johannesburg via Perth, the result not of boredom but disrupted sleeping patterns. His players, Umaga wryly noted, don't usually have trouble sleeping.

There was nothing tired about the way they defended against the Crusaders last night, however. The Crusaders, with intentions of taking over the competition lead, had to work for everything.

Yes, the visitors sneaked down the left touchline after nine minutes through their giant wing Nemani Nadolo courtesy of a pair of slick hands from skipper Kieran Read, but for the rest of the half, the red and blacks couldn't breach them. In the second half, Nadolo fancied he scored through a mass of bodies near the posts, but for a last-ditch suffocation by the Blues' defence.

A significant moment in the first half, if not the match, was the tackle by Blues prop Charlie Faumuina on Crusaders right wing Johnny McNicholl.

Big Charlie had McNicholl lined up from five minutes before, or so it seemed, so when an inside pass found the slight Crusaders back, Faumuina was ready and waiting, connecting around the shoulder area with a perfectly-legal hit which flattened McNicholl and forced him from the field.

There were plenty of smaller moments each side of Faumuina's collision and they all added up to a burst of self-belief for the home side.

Loose forwards Jerome Kaino and Kara Pryor were in the thick of it and with each attack the Blues repelled, the more confident they appeared to get. No 8 Steven Luatua put a shot on Crusaders replacement Jimmy Tupou.

The Blues were blown off the park in Christchurch in their round two encounter. Not this time.

The Crusaders rely on offloads to get their game going. If they don't have those sharp interplays among their big men or between their forwards and backs, then their plan B is to spread the ball to width. The Blues did well to nullify their first option and their second one played into the hands of the home side, who got across in a connected line and defended superbly in front of a good crowd of 21,000.

In the end, the workload told. Crusaders centre Kieron Fonotia went through Ihaia West and then wrong-footed Billy Guyton, for the evergreen Andy Ellis to go over.

Fellow midfielder Ryan Crotty made a break and it all began to flow for the Crusaders, along with the penalties in their favour from referee Angus Gardner.

That shouldn't take away from the Blues' gritty defensive performance How far have the Blues come under Umaga this season? This was the perfect evidence.

In the end, it was Richie Mo'unga's kicking which got the visitors over the line and on to the top of the table.

The finish wasn't there for the Blues, but the heart was and that, after their three weeks away and the all the travel that went with it, says plenty.

- Herald on Sunday

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