Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa: Blues coach Leon MacDonald defiant in deflating defeat
Blues prop Ofa Tuungafasi is yellow carded during the Super Rugby Aotearoa defeat to the Crusaders. Photosport
After yet another defeat to the Crusaders, the 13th in succession, no less, for the Blues, you might expect to find Leon MacDonald decidedly deflated, wondering if he will ever get one over his former team.
Publicly at least, the Blues coach instead attempted to put a philosophical spin on the frustrating 43-27 loss that made many believe this year’s title race is another closed shop scenario.
“Our scrum had good parity, we contested well around the breakdown, we were able to create space,” MacDonald said. “There’s lots to be happy and excited about but we’ve got to be better than what we were because ultimately the scorecard reflects a dominant victory to them.
“There’s enough for us to take away and feel optimistic around how we’re tracking. If we were beaten up in a lot of those areas we were strong I’d feel differently.”
While the Blues had the better of the running metres, possession, territory and lineouts there was never a sense they were on top, trailing 18-7 at half time and chasing the game from there on.
MacDonald spoke before Sunday’s the top-of-the-table Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa encounter of the quest to make Eden Park a fortress, following the now broken five-match unbeaten run at the venue by his men.
Two previously cancelled games against the Crusaders only added to anticipation surrounding the fourth-round match that would answer a series of questions.
Do the Crusaders finally have a serious challenger? Are the Blues the real deal?
Unfortunately for the Blues, both results came back negative.
How much the Blues’ first defeat of the season will rock their confidence remains to be seen.
MacDonald has significantly improved the Blues over the past two-and-a-half years but the failure to take the next step leaves them back amongst the chasing pack, contemplating why composure was absent at times on Sunday.
Defensively the Blues will be disappointed after making 79 per cent (75/95) of their tackles.
Discipline was the major issue, however. The Blues conceded 15 penalties to the Crusaders’ 13 – many borne out of frustration.
All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi was probably fortunate under the modern laws to escape with a late yellow card for his cleanout that connected with Scott Barrett’s jaw.
Other instances such as replacement hooker Kurt Eklund throwing Sevu Reece, who, in fairness, gave an Oscar winning performance following the incident, offered the Crusaders easy let offs that allowed Richie Mo’unga to consistently build a comfortable lead through five penalties in his 28-point haul.
“We talk a lot about controlling the game. You generally do that when you’ve got the ball in hand and you’re going forward and you’ll get those calls. They did that well,” MacDonald said. “They had us scrambling on defence at times and they were able to pull penalties and accumulate points every time they entered our half so that was really disappointing.
“We were able to match them with four tries each but ultimately our discipline was the difference.”
MacDonald defended Tuungafasi’s clumsy cleanout that should have seen him red carded for a second time in six games.
“It’s a tough one because it happens quickly and the intent was there to clean him off the ball which is his job.
“There wasn’t much in it at all. What you don’t want to do it coach the intent out of our players. We want them to play with good aggression and be nice and physical. If they’re too scared to make tackles or clean rucks we become passive and lose games. It’s a really fine line. I think Ofa was right on that edge.”
The Blues missed abrasive All Blacks flanker Dalton Papalii against the Crusaders. With his replacement, Blake Gibson, leaving the field due to concussion and offseason recruit Dillon Hunt unsighted this year due to the same lingering issues, the Blues well-stocked openside position is already wearing thin.
“We’re getting near the halfway point and depth of squads are going to be tested. Dalton won’t be far away so fingers crossed he’s ready to go.”
A six-day turnaround will now test the Blues’ resolve. Saturday’s trip to Hamilton demands a swift response but the Chiefs will be buoyed after snapping their 11-game losing run by surging back from their 26-7 half time deficit to keep the Hurricanes winless with the 35-29 victory.
Victory over the Chiefs would maintain the Blues trajectory towards this year’s inaugural final but title aspirations won’t get another serious examination until the round nine rematch with the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Given what transpired at Eden Park, few will expect a different result.