It’s been quite fascinating (and, as a one-eyed Crusaders fan, just a tad enjoyable, if I’m to be completely honest) watching the Blues and their demise this season. Fascinating, because while the record books will reflect a terrible season for New Zealand’s proudest province, in actual fact it so easily could have been better. If we track back over the results they have recorded we see that rather than starting off poorly their losing streak has grown like the veritable snowball, and it’s interesting to see how these things can gain momentum as supporters, commentators and the media clamber on board the band-wagon.
The Blues started their season with a one-point loss to the Crusaders, the most decorated side in Super Rugby history. No shame there. They were then rolled by the Chiefs, but as the best performing kiwi side this year that’s not a mortal sin. An early season trip to South Africa yielded a sensational victory over the Bulls, and a narrow loss to the Stormers, two teams that would set the pace as the competition unfolded.
They returned home, and were pipped on the buzzer by the Hurricanes. Now at this stage, they’re 1-4; sure, not great reading, but I’m certain the coaching staff were telling their players they weren’t far off the pace. But then, following their Round 6 bye they travelled to Melbourne, and got dumped by a Rebels side who most thought would be the competition whipping boys all year. And that’s when the public perception really changed. All of a sudden they’ve gone from nearly beating the Crusaders and ‘Canes, and an encouraging tour of Africa to being 1-5 on the back of a humiliating loss to a team from AFL country. Immediately the headlines went from ‘Luckless Blues So Close Again’ to ‘Awful Blues Slump To Yet Another Defeat’.
Since then things really have spiralled out of control. The players seem to have bought in to the fact that they can’t buy a win, so much so that a narrow loss to the Highlanders recently met with warm reviews from the media about the courage they displayed, bringing back memories of England doing a lap of honour after drawing with the All Blacks.
What it shows is that things can very quickly start to appear worse than they actually really were. The amateur club team I follow in New Zealand has had a very similar season. We recruited well, and have a roster of players that should have made us very competitive. We lost the first game of the season when we were outmuscled in the first half, before staging a rousing come-back, only to fall short. That could be put down to lack of preparation pre-season. No big drama. We lost fairly and squarely in round two, then started slowly again in weeks 3 and 4, only to lead both matches with less than ten remaining. Each time we were run down late in the game, but at that stage, while we were 0-4, we knew it could so easily have been 3-1.
Then we faced the team who are the regular cellar-dwellers of the competition, and a match which looked under control slipped away in a terrible ten minute spell midway through the second half. Now we’ve gone from being 0-4 but ‘oh-so-close’ to being 0-5 and unable to beat the competition easy-beats.
All of a sudden things look dreadful. Morale plummets, and we lose the next week, to another team who is traditionally weak. The encouraging performances of just a fortnight ago have been completely forgotten, and we find ourselves in a huge hole, lacking the confidence and self-belief to drag ourselves out. Imagine how different things could have been for the Blues if Weepu’s drop-goal attempt on the buzzer against the Crusaders in round one had sailed over instead of narrowly missing. Or if they had have been able to contain Beauden Barrett, with time up on the clock against the Hurricanes and hold on for victory at Eden Park. Rugby is all about winning the key moments, and this season Auckland have lost all of theirs. A tackle there, a successful penalty kick here, and all of a sudden the media is off their back, the players believe, and the season plays out completely differently.
Guest Author: Tim Cronin