Mehrtens: Blues build on back of brute force

CONTENDERS AGAIN? The Blues out-muscled the Highlanders on both attack and defence on Saturday night.
CONTENDERS AGAIN? The Blues out-muscled the Highlanders on both attack and defence on Saturday night.

This is hard to say as a Christchurch boy but I found myself becoming a bit of a Blues fan at the weekend.

They look a legitimate contender based on what we saw at Eden Park and if they continue to play with that sort of intensity and accuracy, it could just be their years of under-achievement are at an end.

It's not that the Highlanders were that bad. They gave it plenty in the first half, and showed the pluck and commitment that has been a hallmark of most of their play this season.

But the Blues were very good. I was impressed by their aggression, particularly in the cleanouts which are arguably the most important part of the game these days.

There are around 150 cleanouts in a game, as opposed to up to 20 lineouts and scrums. So the real contest is now around the breakdown area and it's all about being efficient and accurate there.

You need communication and lucidity to be good at the breakdown - to identify your target and use good technique to clear him out - then the power and aggression comes into play.

The Blues showed those attributes in bucketloads on Saturday and were more accurate in everything they did. When a defence spreads, as the Highlanders' did when they beat the Blues in the first round, it's because they're committing minimal numbers to the breakdown.

The Blues identified the need to be better here. That aggression at the breakdown then flowed on to the raw power they were able to call on when they needed go-forward from guys like Ma'a Nonu, Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Jerome Kaino and Hayden Triggs.

If the Blues can reproduce that mix of power and accuracy they're going to be hard to beat because they've got the X-factor to bury any team. They've set their standard now, the challenge will be to maintain and sustain.

It was no coincidence we got a quality game at Eden Park. Referee Steve Walsh was bloody good. He was firm, consistent, confident and communicated well with the players. As a result the game was allowed to flow.

At a time when we are talking about referees way too much, the focus went back on the players, and that's because the ref had a good game.

The Blues had struggled against the Highlanders' defence in the first match, but made some crucial adjustments. They made sure the first couple of guys at the breakdown took out the threat, and therefore kept numbers on attack. They also used the pick and go effectively.

The Highlanders did a reasonable job but just didn't have the game-breakers of the Blues. They rely a lot on the two Smiths, and Malakai Fekitoa was well-contained.

There's a bit of criticism that the Blues missed the bonus point for four tries, but I reckon they deserve a bonus point for three tries to none, and in France they would have got it.

Over there, you get a bonus point if you score three tries more than the opposition. I like that. First, it does away with the ludicrous situation where both teams can pick up bonus points; and, second, it maintains interest late in blowout games.

If you're up four tries to one you can't just button off. And if you're down plenty, you can still deny the opposition a bonus point by finishing with a flurry.

Speaking of big finishes, how about those Chiefs? Coming from so far back at Loftus with so little time left, with a balls-of-steel conversion from the sideline, would have gone a long way to erasing their disappointment from Perth.

That will be great for their belief and confidence, and I'd expect them to win this week against the Cheetahs.

The Hurricanes would have been rapt with a much-needed win in Christchurch, but, frankly, I was more encouraged by the Crusaders in defeat than some of their wins this season.

The game hinged on two poor defensive decisions on the outside channels which led to tries. But the Crusaders had more game than they'd shown previously, and don't look a million miles off it.

It's make-or-break now as they head to the Lions and Cheetahs. I remember back in 1999 when our tour was the springboard to an unlikely title run from fourth.

We lost in Cape Town but got a last-gasp win over the Bulls in Pretoria and that set us off. We didn't lose after that, and those with a long memory might recall the, er, exuberance I showed that day in Pretoria.

I just hope the Crusaders can come up with a similar response in hostile territory.

Fairfax Media