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

Rugby: Finishing touch would end Umaga's first season on right note

Melani Nanai impressed for the Blues in their defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend. Photo / Getty Images.
Melani Nanai impressed for the Blues in their defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend. Photo / Getty Images.

The Blues have two matches left this season - both at home - against the Brumbies and Waratahs, the two best teams in Australia.

Tana Umaga's men won't make the playoffs - their recent defeat to the Hurricanes in Wellington confirmed that - but two victories to finish would represent a successful return for Umaga in his first season in charge. And, going by their recent form, they are capable of doing just that.

Umaga's message is cutting through. Last year, for whatever reason, it didn't. Under John Kirwan in 2015, the Blues won only three matches in total, and none away. They often appeared confused. This year they have six victories and a draw, including two wins on the road - and consecutive ones at that - against the Kings and Force, and there is little sign of confusion, only a frustrating habit of letting games slip at the death.

An example of Umaga's game sense and ability to change tactics on the run could be seen during that 37-27 defeat to the Hurricanes.

Noticing that the home side were sending very few defenders into the ruck, he apparently told his side to look for opportunities around the fringes. The result was Jerome Kaino's second try, the big loose forward plucking the ball out of a ruck and galloping in from 35m to help the Blues to a 24-17 halftime lead.

Umaga's pack are doing the job in terms of the set piece and breakdown, and we are now seeing the best of prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Steven Luatua, and Kara Pryor, the latter a loose forward who had a stunning match at the Cake Tin.

Tu'ungafasi, 24, has long been as a prop of high potential, and he appears to be finally fulfilling it. Perhaps his test debut against Wales in Dunedin has given him that final push over the threshold.

Melani Nanai, a wing who played fullback against the Hurricanes, also had his best match of the season and looks like a good prospect for the No15 jersey next season. Nanai, a slow burner until now, led the way over the weekend with his carries (21), offloads (7), and clean breaks (5). He was second to Force wing Dane Howlett-Petty in terms of metres with the ball (151).

More positive news is the fact the scan on his hand this week showed no break and he should be available for the Brumbies at Eden Park on Friday.

A backline next season of Augustine Pulu, Ihaia West, Rene Ranger, Sonny Bill Williams, George Moala, Rieko Ioane and Nanai would not lack for X-factor.

In the meantime - the next two matches - we need to see a hard, ruthless, edge in order to finish teams off. The Blues let the Crusaders and Hurricanes off the hook in their past two matches, now it's time to finish the job and the season in the right way.

And in Umaga they appear to have the right man to help them do it.

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