Blues and Highlanders lack pivotal depth
March 13, 2013
South Africa's Bulls overawed the young Blues in Auckland and Jeff Wilson says an experienced five-eighth would have helped the home team cope a lot better © Getty Images
It is interesting how decisions made at the recruiting stage of the Super Rugby campaign last year have already had a big impact on some franchises four weeks into the competition.
The Blues, who let go of five-eighths Michael Hobbs and Gareth Anscombe, found themselves playing two 20-year-olds - one who has spent most of his time at fullback in Marty McKenzie - when they really could have used the experience that either Hobbs or Anscombe could have brought. It was a mistake to let both players go, although Anscombe has been doing the job at fullback for the Chiefs but has not yet been tried as a starter at first five-eighth.
The Highlanders have a similar situation where they have Lima Sopoaga, who plays the running game and has an element of unpredictability and a strong defensive player. Then they also have Colin Slade who has more of an all-round game, but who has spent so long on the sidelines it is a question of whether he can get up to speed so quickly after injury in order to make the instinctive decisions.
The Highlanders' management had their hands forced last weekend against the Cheetahs. Sopoaga was out of sorts and the Highlanders were forced to play Slade longer than the 15-20 minutes they had intended.
These are critical areas to be exposed so early in the competition because about now New Zealand's teams in Super Rugby should be realising, if they didn't already know it, that every game in the competition is vitally important. When you have only 16 weeks before the play-offs, you can't spend time finding your feet as a combination and searching for success.
Ideally, you need 10 wins to even stay close to qualifying for the top six, and even that many wins is not always a guarantee of a finals' berth. It is so important to start the season well and position yourself to have a chance at the business end of the competition.
That situation has made the Highlanders-Hurricanes game this weekend an absolute must-win for both sides if they are to be close to being contenders by the end of the competition.
By losing to the Cheetahs the Highlanders, even at this stage, are in doubt of making the play-offs. The Crusaders' loss to the Hurricanes is not quite so damaging because it was an away game, and they have a game in hand.
The Blues let one slip at home, and it was a game that was very winnable. They have only themselves to blame for that. Sir John Kirwan said at half-time there was not enough energy or passion. That's what happens with a younger team. They aren't experienced enough to take a business-like approach and what they faced was something different to anything they had faced before. It was a physical challenge from the Bulls, and until you have been there and done that, that physical issue then becomes a mental challenge. And the Blues struggled to deal with that. It was obvious after half-time that they were coping better.
The Chiefs, by picking up two bonus points against the Stormers in South Africa, have the equivalent of a draw and the outcome for them was nowhere near as debilitating.
This week in Dunedin, the Hurricanes, who have been very similar to what they were last year in keeping close to their opponents and winning games as a result, know if they can do the same to the Highlanders they will have a good shot at winning. The Highlanders have got no rhythm and their new recruits have not been on the field at the same time. Unless they can find some answers at the breakdown they will find winning tough.
The Crusaders face a tough assignment against a Bulls team playing with great confidence by doing what they do very well. All the South African teams have performed well.
The Chiefs have got the Kings in Port Elizabeth and if they can improve their discipline, because that was what let them down in Cape Town, they should have too many big guns for the Kings. However, the Kings appear to have gelled quickly as a team and bought into what they are trying to achieve and they have been stout on defence.
The lesson of the competition to date is that teams cannot afford to lay in wait for wins down the line. If you have to win nine or 10 of your last 12 games it is a massive ask, especially if you still have to travel. It is vital to get those early wins.
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