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Out of the blue

The Blues’ surprisingly dominant start to the season continues the recent rise of Super Rugby dark horses.

In recent seasons, at least one franchise have come from obscurity to defy logic and the expectations of all in the know. In 2011, it was the Reds who rose up the ranks to clinch their first ever Super Rugby title.

The unfancied Chiefs followed suit in 2012, surprising all and sundry by winning the ultra competitive New Zealand Conference and going on to become only the sixth franchise to capture the Super Rugby crown.

The Brumbies and Hurricanes also exceeded expectations last year and narrowly missed out on play-off places, finishing seventh and eighth respectively, with the Brumbies denied the Australian Conference title and a home play-off by a final-round loss to the Blues.

This year it is the Blues who have sprung a major surprise with their back-to-back hammerings of the Hurricanes and Crusaders. After last year’s disastrous campaign, which saw the Auckland side finish a franchise worst 12th that resulted in the axing of coach Pat Lam and departure of key players such as Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Alby Mathewson, a young, inexperienced Blues side were expected to struggle in this, their rebuilding year.

And while it’s far too early to declare the three-time champions title contenders once more, their performances over the past fortnight were a timely reminder of the value of world-class coaching and renewed self belief.

The manner and degree in which these teams returned to relevancy may differ, but their resurgence stem from the same origin. Ewen McKenzie (Reds), Dave Rennie (Chiefs), Jake White (Brumbies), Mark Hammett (Hurricanes) and John Kirwan (Blues) – all masterful mentors who highlight the distinct difference between a good coach and an exceptional one.      

Kirwan, in his debut Super Rugby season, has one of the greatest minds and most successful coaches of all time to call on in Graham Henry, the World Cup-winning former All Black boss and inaugural Blues coach serving as his technical adviser.

The tactical revolution of the team aside, the confidence and character the pair have instilled in their exuberant squad is uncanny and the primary reason for the franchise’s turnaround in fortune. It all starts in the top two inches and no-one knows this better than the decorated Blues duo.

No longer are they a group of individuals; they are a cohesive unit and play as such. Their confidence and unity are reflected in their positive play and are reaping immediate rewards.   

It would take some time scrolling through the Super Rugby archives to find the last time the mighty Crusaders were as thoroughly outclassed as they were at Eden Park at the weekend.

The Blues ran in five tries and kept the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history tryless in their 34-15 bonus point triumph in a masterclass of positive, aggressive and cerebral rugby. From the outset it was apparent what the Blues’ intentions were – they were going to back themselves and hit the Crusaders with a diverse attack of forward drives, inventive backline plays and smart tactical kicking.

Their approach was in stark contrast to that of the Sharks and Stormers – the two teams expected to spearhead South Africa’s challenge – at Kings Park, and therein lays the true value of a great coach.

The two South African powerhouses employed the same stale and predictable strategy; they played not to lose whilst the Blues played to win. That’s the major difference between South African and New Zealand rugby and the reason behind the increasing gulf between rugby’s greatest foes.

You can romanticise the ‘arm-wrestle’ in Durban all you like, accentuate the positives (the commitment and physicality of the players) and attempt to hide the blatant lack of tactical ingenuity by the coaches and it will still pale in comparison with the spectacle the Blues and Crusaders dished up in Auckland.

South African coaches deserve an equal measure of indignation as the rich plaudits Kirwan, Henry and the rest of the Blues coaching staff are receiving for their positive approach to the game.       

By Quintin van Jaarsveld

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