Boom, our Auckland Blues got their Super Rugby campaign underway with a fairly epic win over defending champions Otago Highlanders. This signaled the start of the Tana Umaga era and it doubled as a great start to the Super Rugby season and a great start to Umaga's tenure as Blues coach. However, Umaga strikes me as the type of coach who knows that one win in February means zilch in the big scheme of things.
That was my gut-feeling ahead of this game as Umaga left Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina on the bench, plus he didn't even include new recruit Matt Duffie in the squad. Umaga is building into his work and while there's plenty of hype, joy and excitement around the Blues after this result, we've seen it before and Umaga is slow cooking this beautiful roast.
This is especially the case when you consider that pretty much everything went in favour of the Blues. More possession, fewer turnovers, fewer penalties, fewer lineouts lost than the Highlanders, plus a crucial decision for Patrick Tuipolotu's try that went the Blues' way. It just felt like this game was meant to end in a Blues win and it's great as a Blues fan to see this, however not too many games of Super Rugby will pan out like this for the Blues.
Who knows how the Highlanders will go this season, I don't think they will miss 26 tackles too often though. Perhaps this a tick besides Umaga's name as a coach, that he's turned the Blues into a hard working defensive unit who ooze that 'do it for your mate' culture. The Blues only missed 11 tackles, we'll have to wait and see if they can repeat that consistently throughout the season.
Blake Gibson was dynamic with a stampeding try, 41 running metres, 2 breaks and 10 tackles.
Patrick Tuipulotu and Josh Bekhuis compliment each other nicely. Bekhuis' domain is the lineout where he goes about his business with little fuss, snatching 8 lineouts to Tuipolotu's 3 lineout wins but Tuipulotu is the bloke who adds the polish. Tuipulotu had twice as many carries as Bekhuis, scored a dubious try and even snuck an offload in for good measure.
Lolagi Visinia did his best to emulate Ben Smith's greatness, getting involved in everything and offering a nice kicking option from fullback. Visinia had 8 carries for 50m (Smith had 14 for 55m), kicked twice (Smith kicked 5 times), offloaded once (Smith twice) and passed 3 times (Smith passed 13 times). Smith is the best fullback in the world so not too many other Super Rugby fullbacks will be able to match his work and I certainly don't expect young Visinia to do so, but Visinia impressed with how busy he was in all facets.
This should also be a reminder of how damn good Smith is.
Ihaia West and Bryn Hall look like an exciting combination, both are quick-footed and spread the ball efficiently. This was on the back of a strong effort from their forwards who were better than their opponents at gaining metres and quick ball, making life much easier for the Blues' play-makers.
One player who didn't quite do the trick for me was Japanese international Male Sa'u. He only had 2 carries and missed more tackles (2) than he made (1) which with Rene Ranger showing off his strong running game, won't quite cut it.
Week one is always too early to jump to any conclusions and this effort from the Blues only confused matters for me. The Blues started without three of their best players, who will likely start next week so there's plenty of exciting improvement to come, however it also felt like the Highlanders didn't quite show up.
It was close, things went the way of the Blues and we move on to week two, expectations and excitement safely put back in the kit bag.