Blues hopes high after hat-trick of Super Rugby wins

    2019-04-01 07:08

    Wellington - After a run of three wins in Super Rugby, fans of the Auckland-based Blues dare to hope the troubled team's long-delayed resurgence finally has begun.

    The Blues have been the problem child of New Zealand rugby for many years, churning through a series of high-profile coaches who have failed to lift the team from the bottom of the New Zealand conference.

    Pat Lam, a former All Blacks loose forward with strong coaching credentials and who has gone on to guide Connaght to their first ever major trophy, did best when he had the team from 2009-12.

    Former All Blacks winger John Kirwan, knighted by New Zealand for his work in the area of mental health, coached the team from 2013-15 and found their problems intractable.

    Tana Umaga, the former All Blacks captain, was thought to be a perfect fit when he took over in 2016 but even he couldn't lift the team out of its malaise.

    A team which was the original powerhouse of Super Rugby, winning the title in the tournament's first two seasons and again in 2003, has been in a long and unfathomable decline. Despite having the biggest player catchment in New Zealand, the Blues last reached the Super Rugby semi-finals in 2011; since then they have placed 12th, 10th, 10th, 14th, 11th and ninth - and finished last in the New Zealand conference in each of those years.

    Each of those seasons began with high hopes before ending in failure as the Blues showed an inability to match the standards of a strong New Zealand conference.

    The national rugby union, fearing the club's lack of success might dim the sport's popularity in New Zealand largest city - a fear partly supported by recent data - worked with the Blues to arrest their decline. Nothing seemed to work... until this season.

    The catalyst for change appears to have been the revival of the Auckland provincial team, which after several losing seasons stepped up last season to win the National Championship. That success seems to have rubbed off.

    After starting the Super Rugby season with three losses, including a 24-22 opener to the nine-time champion Crusaders, wins over the Tokyo-based Sunwolves, Dunedin-based Highlanders and Cape Town-based Stormers have given the Blues their first three-match winning streak since 2017. Their win over the Highlanders on March 22 was their first over another New Zealand franchise in three Super Rugby seasons.

    Saturday's 24-9 win over the Stormers was their best of the season. While the Blues lacked possession for long periods, they were clinical with the ball they did have, scoring three tries to nil for a rare bonus point win. They also defended tenaciously, making more than 180 tackles.

    The performance was enough for captain James Parsons, a hard-working hooker who has been at the centre of their improvement, to declare his team the "new Blues."

    Parsons said it was time the Blues buried their history of under-performance.

    "Whatever is in the past is in the past," Parsons told reporters. "We write our own narrative.

    "The only people that can change it is the boys in there (pointing to the locker room) and that's what we're trying to do."

    Realists will say the Blues still have some way to go. The win over the Sunwolves wasn't impressive and though the defeat of the Highlanders ended the Blues' drought against New Zealand rivals, it was against a team playing poorly.

    The Stormers usually dominate opponents through their strong forward pack but departed from that formula on Saturday at huge cost. They tried to play the Blues in the open field and paid dearly for a high turnover rate.

    The Blues still lack one of the key ingredients of a title-winning Super Rugby team, a world-class flyhalf, and that has been one cause of their failure over the last decade. Since Carlos Spencer they have struggled to settle on a No 10, using more than 30 players in the role.

    Otere Black played flyhalf against the Stormers, scoring a try, landing three conversions and kicking a penalty goal.

    The Blues, sitting third in the New Zealand conference, next host the Sydney-based Waratahs, who are second in the Australian conference with three wins and three losses.

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