Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Blues season review: The best campaign in five years

Piers Francis of the Blues (C) is congratulated on his try from James Parsons (L) and Tevita Li (R). Photo / Getty Images.
Piers Francis of the Blues (C) is congratulated on his try from James Parsons (L) and Tevita Li (R). Photo / Getty Images.

The season over, the hard work begins immediately for the Blues as they look to figure out how they can build on what was a promising campaign under rookie coach Tana Umaga.

They will start to dissect their season in the next few weeks but no one will need to dig too deep to discover that, for the first time since 2011, the positives significantly outweigh the negatives.

On a straight results basis, the Blues enjoyed their best campaign in five years. They ended with more wins than losses - something they have not done since 2011.

That they, again, finished last in the New Zealand Conference could be misinterpreted as a lack of progress or development. But 2016 has been an exceptional year, with four of the top five sides being from New Zealand.

To get a better handle on where the Blues sit in relation to the wider competition, their results have to be more closely probed.

What they show is that the Blues were undefeated against Australian sides and lost to just one African team (Lions). They also comfortably beat the two best Australian sides in consecutive weeks, the Brumbies and Waratahs.

Of the six defeats the Blues incurred, two were inflicted by the Crusaders, two by the Hurricanes and one by the Chiefs.

With the exception of the first clash against the Crusaders, the Blues were genuinely competitive in the other four local derbies, which illustrated the other giant breakthrough they made this year - they learned how to perform away from home.

The Blues away record since 2013 has been dire and, in a three-year period, won only two games on the road. They simply didn't perform to any level when they travelled between 2013 and 2015.

This year, they won twice on the road and drew another but, more importantly, they fronted with passionate and engaged performances.

With the aberration of their 43-5 loss to the Lions at Ellis Park - which was easily the worst 80 minutes they produced - the Blues finished 2016 with a consistency of performance if not results.

In their last four games - Crusaders, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Waratahs - they scored 16 tries and played with a flow and confidence that was at times as good as anything they have produced in a decade.

Their defence tightened throughout the season as they bedded in a new system and the likes of Steven Luatua, Kara Pryor, Blake Gibson, Melani Nanai and Piers Francis all developed into strong and influential performers.

"You always want to kick right to the top and when you don't, at this stage you think about the what ifs," said Blues coach Umaga.

"Everyone is pretty happy with where we are at. It is great that we finished with a bit of a hiss and a roar but we are now finished and some teams are still going and we wish we were there. But it is positive. No doubt about that."

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