Wed, 28 Jul 2021

Blues out to end 18 years of Super Rugby pain

17 Jun 2021, 20:14 GMT+10

It's been an agonising 18-year wait for the Blues to reach a Super Rugby final and coach Leon MacDonald admits Saturday's Trans Tasman decider against the Highlanders will be "special".

Once a Super Rugby powerhouse, the Blues won the last of their three titles in 2003 and until this year had not even made the play-offs since 2011.

But they have excelled in Super Rugby Trans Tasman, which pitted New Zealand's teams against Australia's, exposing a gulf in class as Kiwi teams won 23 of the 25 matches.

The Blues' presence in the final is still a minor upset, as is the absence of the Crusaders, who have swept all before them in recent years.

The Christchurch-based team narrowly missed the decider on points differential after finishing level on the ladder with the Blues and Highlanders.

The Highlanders' sole title came in 2015 and bookmakers, perhaps surprisingly, rate them outsiders to claim the title at Eden Park on Saturday.

While they boast only one starting All Black in scrumhalf Aaron Smith, MacDonald rated the Highlanders a "scary" proposition not to be underestimated.

"They've been outstanding all season," he said.

"They have excellent set-piece, they're very accurate and they have some dangerous attacking players - it should be a whale of a game."

The teams met twice in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, with honours even at one win apiece.

MacDonald took over the Blues at the end of 2018 and set about rebuilding the team's culture and structures.

The spectacular decline since 2003 was particularly frustrating for Blues fans as the team had the largest talent pool in New Zealand but constantly allowed promising youngsters to move elsewhere and flourish.

A wealth of coaching talent came and went - including Pat Lam, John Kirwan and Tana Umaga - without realising the Blues' undoubted potential.

MacDonald has sought to instil discipline and teamwork into a side that previously relied too heavily on flashes of individual brilliance.

He said it had come together during Super Rugby Trans Tasman.

"We've been more consistent this time. Our defence has been strong, we've been smarter and had more discipline," he said.

"We've thrown away trying to play the miracle ball and focused on playing in the right part of the field, off the back of a good set-piece."

The Blues still possess eye-catching ball runners such as Rieko Ioane and Finlay Christie, who they will need to combine with a hard-grafting forward pack to overcome the Highlanders.

Source: News24

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