Today's 30-16 victory over Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies, caps off the longest winning streak the Auckland Blues have put together all year - two.
Last week, they convincingly defeated the bottom feeders of the Australian conference, the Western Force in their home finale. These victories kept them out of wooden spoon contention and left Blues fans asking one question: where were these Blues all year?
They weren't perfect, but they definitely played with more accuracy and flair than they have throughout the season. Maybe it's because they had nothing left to lose. Or maybe the players were playing for their beloved coach. Either way, if the Blues had played this kind of rugby more often, this 2012 season could've gone a lot differently.
Injuries to key players have often been fingered as the culprit. Experienced All Blacks such as Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Anthony Boric and Isaia Toeava have missed good chunks of the year, with the latter three only managing to play in the opening games. Other notable names on the injury list include promising young players Gareth Anscombe, Charlie Faumuina and David Raikuna.
But these injuries don't excuse the poor execution of the Blues players who remained healthy. The line-out was an absolute disaster. Their timing was off far too often and they lost their own ball with alarming regularity. Balls were often dropped, high balls were allowed to bounce and many of the passes were poor. These are the basic skills that players are taught throughout all levels of rugby and yet these professionals failed to display them.
Lam's selection policy was also very confusing. 41 players donned a Blues jersey this year. Injuries had a hand in many of those selections, but many of them were also one hit wonders who were dropped from the squad after they showed they weren't ready for the step up in competition. Players like George Moala, who had problems with his defensive alignment, Pauliasi Manu, who kept putting his hand on the ground, and even Lam's own nephew Ben Lam, who let high balls bounce, showed that Super Rugby is a big step up from provincial competition.
Perhaps just as confusing were the players who were repeatedly selected despite making constant mistakes. Lachie Munro was always selected for his goal kicking, despite being a liability in defense. Ali Williams was far from the player he used to be and never appeared to put much effort in his game play. In fact, the Blues line-out showed some improvement after his season ending injury.
Regardless of who's coaching next year, whether it be John Kirwan or Kieran Crowley, the Blues roster will be undergoing some big changes. Kaino and Toeava have already indicated that they will be heading to Japan. Many other players have simply not shown good enough form to secure themselves in for roster spots. Apart from those mentioned above, players such as Weepu or Mathewson have not shown the form that led them to All Blacks selections in previous years.
The last two weeks of the season should provide Blues fans with a glimpse of hope. The fine play of Sevens stars Charles Piutau and Sherwin Stowers provide them with possible replacements for the departing Toeava and the possibly departing Rudi Wulf. Steven Luatua appears like he can be a capable replacement for the possibly retiring Anthony Boric and Faumuina reminded us why he was initially selected for the All Blacks squad a few weeks ago.
Hopefully, next season continues on from the way this one ended. New Zealand's biggest rugby market needs a winning team again, or else the Warriors may take more fans away.
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