In Defence of The Blues
By Mark Calverley
I admit, when JK gave his defiant speech after last weeks' loss I had mixed thoughts. "Typically brave", "deluded" and "interesting" amongst them. JK's an engaging and intelligent man, but I don't see him as a bullsh....er!
If you study the statistics (check out Opta) it does show that the Blues are doing most things right and most things well. Of course, there are 'statistics and damn lies' and the results show O from 5. It ain't a good look or a strong arguing platform for the Blues and their boss.
So if the stats are good, the mood is good and the tactics are good is it all down to bad luck or dodgy refs with a hatred of Latte drinking Jaffa types? Well not all of the refs are from Christchurch, so actually 'no.'
What is killing the Blues is critical small errors at critical times. Sloppy ball placement, wide attacking alignments that lack the required shape, defenders ball watching at the ruck for 1 or 2 seconds too long, critically poor kicks: Missed touch kicks, or fancy banana kicks that are too hard to control and make minimal meters etc.
What's letting the Blues down is composure under pressure and any kind of calming influence in midfield. What a difference would Conrad Smith make in terms of making the right decision at the right time? Players like Matt Proctor and the super prospect, Nehe Milner -Skudder - talented players in much the same mould as Lolagi Visinea and Tevita Li - were outstanding last night, but when things needed direction, both Smith and Barrett set the tone.
Whilst the Blues had Sa'ili and Piatau - outstanding and decorated players in their own right - there is not the same balance across the backline as with the Hurricanes. That's balance as much in the head as the heart and the muscles.
In Ihia West the Blues have the best 10 available to them and he has undoubted talent. He's playing on many of the same grounds and many of the same players as he did in his impressive ITM Cup forays, but he hasn't captured the same form. Ok, it's a step up and in a pivotal position it's hard to replicate the same impact and form, but he is clearly second guessing how to steer the Blues ship and doesn't appear to be getting the help, discipline and support of those outside him.
Compare the Blues to the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs (and some may also say the Highlanders) the Blues are the only NZ franchise without a world-class, experienced 10. Ihia West will get more confident and will become a very good player at this level, but the balance of players outside him - in terms of their decision-making and consistent skill application - is what has really hampered the Blues. The forwards must secretly be extremely frustrated as their work-rate and the platform they have set has been impressive. Luatua, Kaino, Braid have been consistently inspirational and Brendan O'Connor is that athletic no-nonsense player that teams need. His grafting and uncomplicated effectiveness last night was exactly what the Blues needed. That same directness and simple execution of skills is required from 10-15 if the Blues want to start chalking wins.
The Blues were much better last night in an entertaining game and maybe there are some seeds for optimism for them in the coming weeks. But... there are no easy games coming up for them and with every increasing loss comes more and more pressure on the players and the coach. I hope they will ride their way out of this and I hope that JK proves his words with his teams' actions in the coming weeks. I suspect that these young Blues players will end up being much better for this experience, but that will take two things. Time and a willingness from them to not just play with enthusiasm but to play with consistency.
Video Courtesy of Sky Sports