Call it a Far North miracle but the Blues have come out firing in 2019 with a 43-10 thumping of the Chiefs in Kaikohe on Saturday.
As the first of two preseason games, the Blues ran in seven tries against a despondent Chiefs outfit, making a strong statement just weeks away from round one of this year's Super Rugby competition.
Playing alongside the cheers of a well-attended Lindvart Park, the Blues trumped the visitors in nearly every facet of the game. The Auckland-based side clearly outstripped the Chiefs in attack and defence, which contributed to such a heavy defeat for the visitors.
Blues winger Caleb Clarke was electric down the left-hand side, scoring three tries in a game where both squads gave their younger recruits a taste of super rugby. Akira Ioane at No 8 was a huge presence for the Blues who, as a team, stole more than a dozen turnovers from the Waikato visitors.
Chiefs halfback Brad Weber showed some promise early in the game, along with first-five and Taniwha recruit Jack Debreczeni, but without their eight All Blacks and with the failures of regular performers such as fullback Shaun Stevenson they were never in the game.
"We've been working on all aspects of the game, but to see the basics done well was the most pleasing," Blues head coach Leon MacDonald said.
"Tom Coventry has worked really hard with the forward pack around the set piece and I thought that it worked really well."
MacDonald credited assistant coach Tana Umaga for the Blues' defensive performance, in a game where the fitness of both squads was tested in uncomfortable, muggy conditions.
"We finished pretty strong and to get through injury-free and get some good game time under the belt, we are starting to see the confidence grow."
While their form with ball in hand was hard to fault, MacDonald acknowledged the team had a tough match-up against the Hurricanes in their second preseason game before they took on the Crusaders in round one of the formal competition.
"[The Hurricanes] are obviously a very strong team and they'll be tough for us, but as long as we keep moving forward with the same attitude, it'll be one to look forward to."
Chiefs head coach Colin Cooper said his side wasted most of their opportunities with ball in hand, and struggled to compete with the physicality of the Blues players.
"We had a lot of young guys out there trying it at this level, but I thought the Blues were more physical around the collision area which is something we need to work on."
While he would look at improving all aspects of his side's performance, Cooper said stringing phases together would be the focus in the days leading up to their preseason clash with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
Cooper remained optimistic about the Chiefs' position going into the season and was glad he was able to give his younger players an opportunity to play in what would have been a foreign area for most of his team.
"It's great for rugby to get into the regions and showcase what they are, so it's good for the Blues to have a game up here."
Local players Matt Matich, Ross Wright and Tom Robinson all received a great reception from the crowd as they returned to their respective teams' benches for a rest. Robinson, from Kerikeri, about a 20-minute drive from Kaikohe, said the game was a tiring encounter.
"We knew that it was going to be tiring, especially the first 20 minutes, but we just focused on going hard in that first period so things would open up for us and they did for the boys in the second half."
Robinson said he was happy to be back playing in front of friends and family, but urged people not to read too much into the emphatic win.
"It's just preseason but it's nice to know that the work we've been putting in is paying off - but as I said, we don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves."
The Blues take on the Hurricanes on Saturday, February 9 at 3pm in Mangatainoka while the Chiefs will take on the Reds in Brisbane on Friday, February 8.