Lam out of options and players out of belief
The admission was brutally honest and decidedly pointed: Blues coach Pat Lam has finally conceded he has no alternative but to keep picking the same under-performing players.
That was the point Lam had reached as he reflected on a team that has lost eight of their nine matches this season – the last six on the bounce.
Last Friday, the Blues capitulated to an under-strength Queensland Reds outfit; playing without structure, discipline or accuracy and earning their coach's wrath afterwards for neglecting to adhere to a clear game plan.
Lam was fit to burst a boiler when he spoke to media on Friday night after a performance he indicated went clearly against instructions on a slippery Eden Park.
By yesterday, as preparations began for Friday's visit to the Hurricanes, he appeared to have mellowed a little, indicating it had been a case of some players down on confidence "trying to make things happen".
He used the phrase "best intentions" and said it had not been a widespread problem, but isolated to some individuals in key positions taking it upon themselves to play the team out of their deep hole.
"It's like life in any role: if you're not getting the results, certain guys feel the pressure," said Lam when asked how his players were dealing with their worst-ever run of results at this level.
"Certainly there's disappointment and hurt but it's about key guys still fronting up, still working and that's what I am seeing.
"Guys are certainly trying; it's just making sure we're on the same page.
"When you can't buy a trick and the confidence is low, the easy thing is to give up. But we'll keep working at it."
It was when someone suggested that some of his players possibly weren't up to the level that Lam appeared to hit the nail on the head.
"We're limited in what we can select and those are the questions you go through as part of the review.
"Unfortunately we're not like the All Blacks; we can't go picking anybody we want.
"This is what we have and the cattle's low at the moment. So when you don't have other options you've just got to keep working and growing the ones you have. That's all part of what we do during the week."
Of course Lam has some heavy-hitters on the sideline. Jerome Kaino (shoulder) and Isaia Toeava (hip) are gone for the season, while Keven Mealamu (calf), Tony Woodcock (calf) and Anthony Boric (neck) were out for the Reds game.
Asked what this season had told him about his second tier of talent, Lam admitted some exasperation over a lack of alternatives.
"A lot of guys are out there doing their best and working hard. Often when I have conversations with people they'll pick up the negatives on what some players are doing.
"I ask them: tell me who you'd put in there? It's easy to say this guy is not playing well but who are you going to put in? Just give me an option. Most people I talk to can't give me an option either."
The problem is it's not most people's job to make the Blues a competitive side.
It's Lam's. And right now, "low cattle" or not, he's failing.
At least he believes he's not scuppering All Black careers.
"He backs his environment," said Lam of whether Steve Hansen would be concerned about the form of some established internationals.
"The All Blacks is a different level, the guys are proven in test match rugby, and he looks at individuals. He's not too concerned."
The Blues could have Mealamu back to face the Canes but Woodcock and Rudi Wulf (shoulder injury) are highly doubtful. Ma'a Nonu and Charlie Faumuina should come through haematomas suffered against the Reds.
Lam will name his team tomorrow. He will have no choice but to select some whom he should probably not.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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