Thursday, February 29, 2024

Agnew’s Angle: Singing the Blues’ praises in Super Rugby

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Satisfying as it was to see Akira Ioane named Player of the Match in the Blues 39-19 Super Rugby Aotearoa win against the Highlanders on Sunday, Finlay Christie and Caleb Clarke would have been just as deserving.

That is not to decry a fitter, more rounded Ioane who has improved his work rate and defence, but to acknowledge the high standard set by relative newcomers.

Scot-born former Saint Kentigern, Tasman and Hurricane halfback Christie has only had a few starts for the Blues this season after Sam Nock, another former St Kents pupil, had started the season so well.

But having played second fiddle to feisty TJ Perenara at the Hurricanes for too long, Christie wisely took his chance with the Blues whose former Tasman coach Leon MacDonald is now the Blues’ chief mentor.

In Dunedin, Christie had the rare distinction of outplaying Aaron Smith, the world’s best halfback, by emulating his quickness to the breakdowns, speed of pass and lively defence.

Furthermore, his support play added thrust to the attack, allowing him to score two of the Blues five tries and set up another.

Left-wing 21-year-old, 108kg son of a gun Caleb Clarke ran with power and pace, busting tackles and also setting up tries with his sweetly-timed passes.

Like 23-year-old ,105kg Rieko Ioane who has made an impressive move from wing to centre, Clarke has all the assets to play well in that position too.

Having not won a Super Rugby crown since 2003 or beating the Highlanders under the Dunedin roof since it was erected in 2011, the Blues have lacked the tactical nouse and cohesion to be a force. Until now.

The difference is Tom Coventry has produced a tough, strong forward pack that packs power in the scrum and possesses genuine depth with fierce competition for starting berths.

Hoskins Sotutu was the best No 8 in the country and making a strong bid for the retired Kieran Read’s All Black jersey before he suffered a knee injury to allow Akira Ioane to return to No 8.

Before that, Ioane had done well at No 6, but only after a serious injury crippled gutsy Tom Robinson’s season.

Having started at fullback, former Hurricanes star Beauden Barrett has played his last few games at his favoured first-five berth where Otere Black had given such good service and whose goal-kicking was superior.

Mark Telea has been a strong, fast right wing who plays with much the same determination and verve of unorthodox Crusaders All Black Sevu Reece.

Under Coventry’s guidance, the forwards have improved immensely, especially at scrum, defence and the powerful runs so often led by Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Sotutu and now Ioane.

There is now real pride in the gutsy Tana Umaga-inspired defence which rose to great heights in the dying stages of wins against the Chiefs and Highlanders.

With the winless Chiefs again feeling hard done by in their 32-19 home loss to the Crusaders on Saturday night, it just goes to show how small the margin is between the best and the rest.

Having moved to second in the championship behind the Crusaders who have a game in hand, the Blues have the bye next weekend before closing their season against the champions at Eden Park the following week.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sportswriter and author


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