They say you must lose one to win one. For that notion to hold true, here are five lessons the Blues need to absorb from the Super Rugby final:
Finals are different beasts
Form counts for nothing in a one-off, knockout match. The Blues arrived at the big dance riding an unprecedented 15-match unbeaten run. They defeated the Crusaders in Christchurch, for the first time since 2004, earlier in the season too. Yet the final was a completely contrasting story. The Blues barely fired a shot. They weren't allowed to.
Post the one-sided defeat Leon MacDonald admitted some of his team, particularly those yet to experience the all-consuming pressure and expectation test rugby demands, were overawed by the occasion and the week leading into to the sold-out Eden Park finale. The Crusaders had been there, done that. It showed. From the outset they were composed and ruthless in their execution. You can't buy that finals experience.
It wasn't just the final the Blues struggled to cope with the sense of occasion. The previous week, in their tense semifinal against the Brumbies, the Blues were fortunate to escape too. They had no answers when the Brumbies started to dictate terms through their rolling maul. The same was true in the final that played out exactly as the Crusaders scripted, with the Blues unable to break the suffocating cycle. Some of that can be attributed to a lack of big-game composure. Some of it is failing to adapt under the bright lights. Next time the Blues reach the finals, they should collectively be better for the experience.
Set piece matters
It might not be the most glamorous part of the game but without a functioning set piece platform you might as well leave your boots at home. I can't recall witnessing a professional lineout capitulation comparable to the Blues losing 10 throws. It was the horror show that could only be viewed through clasped hands; a masterclass in how to buckle any team at the knees. No one man is responsible for the Blues repeated botched lineouts. From starting hooker Kurt Eklund to locks Josh Goodhue and Tom Robinson, all must accept responsibility. Even those who came off the bench, including veteran Luke Romano, could not stop the rot.
Patrick Tuipulotu's return from Japan for next season should help address this area but, on this occasion, the set piece only got worse for the Blues.
After holding their own at scrum time in the first half All Blacks props Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu'inukuafe were dominated off the bench by young Crusaders counterparts Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell. The failure to deliver a solid platform left the Blues backline weapons Beauden Barrett, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Rieko Ioane and Stephen Perofeta floundering behind the gain line under defensive line speed pressure all evening.
Physicality comes first
Aside from the set piece, the Blues lost the physical exchanges, the collisions. Scott Barrett, Cullen Grace and Pablo Matera upstaged Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu and others from the Blues forward pack to the point they went missing in action. While the Crusaders flew off the line and made dominant tackles, with ball in hand Richie Mo'unga and David Havili enjoyed ample time and space to navigate the Blues backfield through astute tactical kicking.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Great leaders influence change. Whether that be through match-turning plays, exuding a calm example others follow or delivering direct messages in the heat of battle, the Blues lacked these figures. There is only so much Barrett could do behind a beaten pack. In this regard the Blues missed Dalton Papalii, their inspirational skipper this season. Two weeks after his appendix surgery Papalii came off the bench early in the second half. By that point, though, the damage had largely been done. With the Crusaders at their suffocating best no one from the Blues, particularly in the forward pack, took the lead to turn the tide. Waiting for halftime coaching directives is often too late.
Homework, homework, homework
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson earned all the plaudits, and rightly so after capturing his sixth title in as many years. Yet he has since revealed assistant coach Scott Hansen, who works closely with the inside backs and takes charge of attack, strategy and planning, started plotting the Blues downfall a month before the final. Any wonder they were so clear and clinical in their execution of the game plan. Living week-to-week worked well for the Blues this season. It kept them focused, and never let minds drift beyond the task at hand, but maybe next year they should keep a dossier on the Crusaders for the end of the campaign. We all know now they will both be there at the business end. Planning revenge well in advance sure paid dividends for the Crusaders. Why not steal a play from their book?