4 May

Shake the dope out
by Rob Wallace
4 May 2003

The Blues have looked anything but final contenders as they have struggled over the last 2 weeks to beat two of the worst teams in the competition. The win over the Sharks the previous weekend was probably the worst game they’ve played this season – with the first half being as poor as some of the rubbish they dished out during the Jed Rowland’s era. Sure, Peter Marshall gave the Sharks far too much slack at ruck and maul time, and didn’t police the offside line at all, but a good team should adapt to that. Add in the high error rate and it was a shocking first half, which thankfully did improve as the game progressed and the forwards began to get into their work. But really, they tried to do too much, too quickly, forgetting that every thing works better from good field position and a solid forward platform.

This weekend’s game against the Cats continued on from there. We began to see a bit more of the forward cohesion and drive that marked the Blues stellar start to the season but the error rate was still too high. Rush had the poorest game he’s had for a couple of seasons and Mika looked asleep for most of the time. Happily Spencer had his kicking game sorted out, and carved off huge chunks of territory to put the Blues down the right end of the field, which is a much better place to be when you begin to throw wild passes.

The forwards played well for much of the game but without the intensity, aggression and accuracy we saw earlier in the season. While very good, they are not the best pack around, and to beat the Crusaders or Brumbies they are going to have to improve a great deal on this performance.

The backline functioned a bit more smoothly, but still made too many errors. It’ll be a hard week at training this week, and hopefully things will improve for the game against the Hurricanes.

In other games, the Highlanders played the wrong style of football and lost. After grinding out a series of wins by shutting down and throttling the opposition, they decided to play wild and loose, but picked the wrong opponent. The NSW Warratahs don’t usually cope against a structured, organised team that dominates set phases, but are quite happy with broken, loose unstructured games, and showed that as they capitalised on the Highlanders bizarre plays to run in 4 tries for a deserved victory. What on earth were the Highlanders thinking? They have a solid pack but an ordinary backline, and playing this strange brand of rugby negates all their strengths and played right into the Warratahs hands.

Meanwhile the Crusaders ease toward finals football with a good performance against the Stormers. We’re still waiting to see them get it all together but finally, with Mehrtens back at the helm, they seem to be almost there. Nevertheless they still haven’t put all the components of their game together – the lineouts were woeful this time, but with Carter at 2nd5 (not 1st) the backline finally started to move.

Their back play made a neat contrast to the Blues, who quickly move the ball wide from set play, through a standard backline, and look to get their threequarters into space early. The Crusaders, however, seemed to be continually passing the ball one off to a forward to keep taking the ball up, and scored through opportunism, error, or by finally breaking down the defence. It’s not pretty but it does work. Their game next week against the Brumbies will be hugely interesting as we get to see the (presumed) majority of the Australian pack against the most structured NZ pack in what may be a foretaste of the Bledisloe games.

The Brumbies were very impressive in taming the Hurricanes pack and denying their backs any decent ball to grab a very important win. They appear to be finally delivering the quality they are capable of and will be tough to beat. The ‘Canes Achille’s heel was shown, as their tight 5 were dominated and their game collapsed. I’m sure they will learn from the experience, as they head into the semifinals.

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