Opinion: Blues rolling back years to Super Rugby glory days

There was a growing sense at Eden Park last Friday as the Blues turned the increasingly bereft Rebels players into pink-jersey-ed one-way turnstiles that this was a continuation of something special for the home side this season.

Caleb Clarke dives to score for the Blues during their thrashing of the Rebels at Eden Park.

This was the Blues of the early years of Super Rugby – when Caleb Clarke’s midfield dad Eroni was turning defenders inside-out for fun and when Hoskins Sotutu’s father Waisake, a heavily-built wing, was making fools of defenders – when Eden Park was a place of hope and joy and the excitement crackled every time the Blues got the ball.

That was a generation ago, when the Blues won the first two championships in 1996 and 1997, when they were too professional and too streetwise for the opposition, when attack trumped defence just about every time and no challenge seemed too big.

A lot of water has flown under the Harbour Bridge since, and much of it troubled, but the tangible signs of improvement last year have turned into something else now. There is evidence of learning and development week by week. The messages are getting through and they appear to be the best side in the competition.

At the weekend, the Rebels, after a two-try start within the opening five minutes, were dreadful for the remaining 70-odd minutes before a consolation try at the end.

However, the heights the Blues reached in terms of their support play and decision making will serve as a benchmark for the rest of the season.

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The 71-28 win felt like a statement performance and they could do a similar job on the same patch of grass against the Reds this Saturday.

Brad Thorn’s men arrive from Brisbane where they suffered a dispiriting defeat to the Highlanders despite the southerners losing both Josh Dickson and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u to yellow cards within the opening quarter.

Thorn, the former All Black hoping to press his case as Dave Rennie’s successor at the Wallabies, is used to hard graft.

However, tightening the Reds’ defensive flaws displayed in the second half of their 27-19 loss at Suncorp Stadium in the hope of containing a supremely confident Blues a week later is likely to be beyond even him.

After that the Blues are off to Australia for matches against the Brumbies in Canberra and Waratahs in Sydney – possibly with memories still fresh from their earlier trip across the ditch this season when they beat both the Drua and Force but looked less convincing in doing so.

Home advantage

The bottom line now is they appear highly likely to hang on to top spot on the table which means home finals advantage is theirs for as long as they continue in the playoffs.

Going by what we saw against the Rebels, that will be a huge boost and may tip the balance their way. Unbeaten at home this season, the Blues are turning Eden Park back into a fortress like they did in the glory days of 1996 and 1997.

“The next little while is critical,” said head coach Leon MacDonald after watching his team score 11 tries against the Rebels.

“It’s going to dictate where we finish on the table. We love playing at Eden Park, we play well here and over the last few years we’ve been hard to beat here. The Crusaders are the only team who have beaten us here for a little while.

“To give us every opportunity over the run home it makes a big difference. There’s also a bit of pride in defending our record here. That’s really important. The guys were switched on, well led throughout the week, and we’ve seen some real growth in stuff we’re dealing with off the park which made a real difference on the park.”

The playoffs picture will be revealed over the next three weeks but on the weekend’s evidence, only the Brumbies and Crusaders appear to have the firepower to beat the Blues this season, but neither of those two are playing with the accuracy and ruthlessness of the Blues.

The title is theirs to lose.