The Blues have everything to prove when they host the Crusaders in what should be the clash of the weekend, writes Oliver Keohane.
There’s Six Nations this weekend, some local preparation matches and as always Premier League football. But my attention will be directed primarily to Auckland, where the Blues play host to the defending champions, the Crusaders, in the early hours of Sunday morning (4:35am SA time).
Last weekend, both sides soared to the same scorelines, recording 39-17 wins against the Highlanders (The Blues) and the Chiefs (the Crusaders).
I wrote at the beginning of Super Rugby Aotearoa that not much will differ this year and that while the games will be good and the energy unmatched, the Crusaders will cruise to another title victory as there is no real comparison to be made between the other franchises and them. After opening wins of 26-13 over the Highlanders and then a 33-16 mauling of the Hurricanes, I wrote that added to the managerial magic of Scott Robertson was the fact that the Crusaders are the only team in New Zealand who have a pack that can dominate, throughout the game and at set piece, apart from perhaps the Blues who finally seemed to be investing in forwards after nearly two decades of forward-neglect.
Sports journalist Liam Napier, an authority on New Zealand rugby, challenged me on Twitter in pointing to the eight All Blacks in the Blues forwards and the individual qualities of certain players. Many of the those same players were part of what could be considered a relatively successful, but ultimately not a winning Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign last year, and I said I wasn’t sold on the loose trio and thought the props were a par below previous All Black front rowers. The weekend post our engagement however saw a phenomenal forward showing from the Blues which laid the platform for flyhalf Otere Black to score 19 points in a team total of 39 to the Highlanders 17.
So the timing could not be better for the Blues to battle the Crusaders. Liam, in his response to my observations, said he reckons the Blues really could challenge the Crusaders, though they are yet to prove it. We haven’t had to wait very long for a chance for them to prove it though, and I’m excited to see it happen! Last year the sides met only once (due to a cancellation), in an epic game that resulted in a 26-15 victory for the Crusaders. The Blues pushed them though, for most of the game, showing a grit and scrap that has lacked in previous Blues sides, and it was ultimately the Crusaders’ All-Black-like ability to go up a gear in the final 15 that saw them emerge victorious.
I sense a similar showing this coming weekend. I would love for the Blues pack to prove me wrong and put it out there that New Zealand’s primary resources lie in both Auckland and Christchurch. The Blues derby against the Crusaders has always been an enjoyable one, but in 2021 there is the added anticipation of this being the Blues’ best side in a long time, and a young side too, coming up against a Crusaders side that can’t seem to lose.