Genuine promise overcame the disappointment of a first round 41-34 Super Rugby loss to the Highlanders, but the Blues desperately need a win against the Chiefs at Eden Park on Friday night to confirm their improvement.
A solid forward performance backed up by some touches of brilliance from Akira Ioane, his brother Rieko, Bryn Gatland and Matt Duffie offers hope despite suffering their 12th loss in a row to a NZ franchise.
Akira Ioane was a national sevens star but, unlike his younger brother, his immense natural gifts have not made him the force he is capable of becoming in the 15-man game.
Part of the reason is his body position has been too high and he has too often taken ruck ball flat-footed.
There was a big improvement against the Highlanders when he was rewarded with two touchdowns and he will be even more dangerous when he roves wider in the manner of Kieran Read, makes breaks and sets up tries for others.
With Jerome Kaino headed overseas at the end of this season, the athletic Ioane needs to continue his improvement if he is to challenge Liam Squire and Vaea Fifita as Kaino’s successor.
Another major plus for the Blues against the Highlanders was the form of third string first-five Gatland who capped an exceptional first half with a sharp try.
Gatland doesn’t have the tricky footwork of Stephen Perofeta but does have much the same goal-kicking prowess and rugby nous of NZ Maori first-five Otere Black in taking smart options.
With Blues newcomers Perofeta and Black suffering pre-season injuries, the cool-headed Gatland is taking his chance to impress, just as he did in the opening match against last year’s British and Irish Lions, coached by his father Warren.
What he brings to a Blues squad big on flash but small on substance is a level-headedness the franchise badly needs.
On Friday night he will face a fast and elusive opponent in the mercurial Damian McKenzie, who tried too much and was outplayed by Richie Mo’unga in the Chiefs 45-23 loss to the Crusaders last weekend.
With so much strike power coming from Rieko Ioane and Matt Duffie on the wings, the extent of their effectiveness will depend on how well the Sonny Bill Williams/George Moala midfield combination clicks.
Having taken time to recover from the severe Achilles injury he suffered at the Rio Olympics, it wasn’t until the All Blacks northern tour late last year that Williams showed his real class with straight running, strong defence and his famed offloads.
Tough as teak Moala is an immensely strong player but still needs to develop his passing skills if the Blues backline is to produce the cohesion necessary to win big games.
He is also a good winger and the option exists for him to switch positions with Rieko Ioane should coach Tana Umaga want to take that gamble.
It is one that would interest All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen who believes centre will eventually be Ioane’s best position.
Meanwhile with Brad Weber, Charlie Ngatai, Anton Lienert-Brown and McKenzie featuring in the Chiefs backline, the Blues backs won’t be the only ones producing the fireworks.
The Chiefs also have a strong scrum capable of causing big problems if the Blues’ big men don’t muscle up.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author