Canon Rugby In Focus: Jim Kayes remembers the Blues for what they were – and shakes his head at what they have become.
It was a balmy afternoon. The sun streamed over a packed Eden Park as we watched in shorts and tee-shirts, roaring the Blues to victory and celebrating when skipper Zinzan Brooke lifted the Super Rugby trophy aloft for the first time in 1996.
To be honest, I can’t remember if it was sunny or not, have no idea what I was wearing and can’t remember how big the crowd was
I know it was in the afternoon because I flew out later that night on my OE but, that aside, the rest are memories seen through rose tinted glasses.
The Blues were good back then, gloriously good, with an All Blacks pack and a backline that had the twin threats of Joeli Vidiri and Jonah Lomu on the wings.
Coming off a decade of Auckland’s provincial dominance, the Blues set the standard in Super Rugby. They were the team everyone else wanted to be.
And now they’re not.
Till they beat the Highlanders on March 22, in round six, the Blues hadn’t beaten a New Zealand team since round one in 2016 – a run of 20 games without a win (there was a draw with the Chiefs in there too).
Worse than that, they haven’t looked like winning the competition since they last won it in 2003.
They made the playoffs under Pat Lam in 2011 but weren’t really title contenders and Lam was sacked the following year.
Two legends of the game have tried to pull the Blues out of the mire, but Sir John Kirwan failed and Tana Umaga has been relegated to assistant coach.
It’s a depressing time line for Blues fans matched in that darkness by the 23-game losing streak they are on against other New Zealand teams away from home.
That streak covers six years and three coaches and, with away games against the Crusaders and Hurricanes still to come, may stretch to 25 games.
It’s odd because home advantage in the Kiwi derbies shouldn’t be a big deal. The travel is irrelevant, the stadia are familiar and the away crowds aren’t hostile in the way they are in other countries and competitions.
Yet the Blues can’t win away from home in New Zealand.
When the Blues lost 12-22 to the Hurricanes at Eden Park last week, a mate who loves his rugby sent me this text: “The Blues are 14th”.
Stark. Simple. Accurate.
Only the Sunwolves, a team destined to be chopped after next year, are keeping them from the very bottom.
If they lose to the Chiefs at Eden Park this weekend, the Blues will almost certainly finish bottom of the New Zealand conference. Again.
It’s where they were last year with half the points of the fourth placed Highlanders, from just four wins.
And, yes, they were last in 2017, too, with 37 points…a long way below the Highlanders’ 51.
Depressingly for Blues fans, the last time they weren’t last in the New Zealand conference was 2013 when they were third.
Why is this? There are many reasons. Here’s a few.
The Blues are historically poor at identifying talent from within their region and then keeping those players.
Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua, Josh Ioane and Braydon Ennor are just a handful of talented players schooled in the Auckland region who have, or are, making a name for themselves elsewhere.
Ennor made the Blues under 18 side while at school but was told he didn’t feature in their long term plans.
Ioane, who went to Auckland’s King’s College, is impressing with the Highlanders, while the Blues have imported Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta.
As for Read…how that Rosehill College student got away should be the subject of a Royal Commission of inquiry.
It is easy to blame the coaches at the Blues for the team’s poor performance. Butt successive coaches have returned similar results, so perhaps it is time the blow torch went on the players.
Few are leaders. Few deal well with pressure. Few make the correct decisions on the field. Few are able to help their team play patient rugby, building pressure and accumulating points.
Instead the Blues look for the quick fix. The try from broken play, the off-the-cuff moment that makes a highlights reel but seldom wins games and never secures a title.
Their loss to the Hurricanes sums up their plight, with too many silly errors and some woeful tackling. Ben Lam (another from Auckland) slipped through three Blues players who were clustered within touching distance of each other, to score a try. It should have been embarrassing.
The Blues had the chance to get back into the game when they had a succession of dominant scrums but, as the penalties rained in their favour, kept turning down easy three points to go for the try.
That’s laudable for the hyperactive who need to feast on tries – but brainless for those who like to see their team win. Points build pressure, pressure creates points.
Those south of the Bombay Hills won’t care a jot about the demise of rugby in Auckland and will point to the fact the All Blacks have, perhaps, never been stronger.
Certainly they’ve won two World Cups during the Blues’ fallow years and, in that time, the four other franchises have produced some of the best players to ever pull on a black jersey.
Not surprisingly, they’ve also shared the spoils, with the Highlanders, Chiefs (twice), Hurricanes and Crusaders all crowned champions since Lam was shown the door.
And who will bet against the Crusaders winning a third consecutive title this year?
The last time the Blues were chasing a three-peat star wing Rieko Ioane was in nappies.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.