Battered at the breakdown and unable to break a defence of granite, David Nucifora’s Blues sunk to a 25-13 loss in the House of Pain, their second consecutive defeat.
Last week, early Blues brilliance was wiped out by Hurricanes backline ingenuity and back row dominance.
Against the Highlanders, the death was more bloody hack than precise execution, but whilst the method was contrasting it produced the same result: a serious case of the blues for Nucifora.
The problem stems from Nucifora attempting to stamp his complex, Brumbies-style rugby on a New Zealand franchise. It doesn’t work, the players are not indoctrinated into its methods and so often complex movements from one end of the field to the other result in only a few metres gain. There is flash but no substance.
The Highlanders, in contrast, are far more limited. They eek out rather than explode, but the ability of their tight five to grind, the brutal dominace of their back row at the breakdown and the efficient marshalling from Nick Evans at 10 has proven to be a far more competitive package.
Even when down to 14 men after Roy Kinikinilau was sinbinned for a high hit in the 52nd minute, there was no suggestion of a momentum shift. The Blues continued to play extravagent rugby, racking up 17 handling errors in the process, and the Highlanders kept smoking them.
Nucifora’s Aussie-fication of the Blues has turned them into a poor man’s Brumbies. They do not offer as much on attack and are weak on defence. Their tight five, spearheaded by All Blacks Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Ali Williams are rendered redundant by the obsession with shovelling the ball as far away from the contact point as possible.
It is the classic case of attempting to impose a game plan on a side, rather than allowing the side to determine the game plan.
The Highlanders, outgunned comprehensively by the Crusaders last week, underlined that what they offer will be similar to last year. They’ll compete in every fixture, and have to be matched physically upfront and have their first phase possession disrupted.
The Blues made the error of surrendering the contact point in the hope of running the Highlanders off their feet through elaborate backline play. It proved fatal.
Highlanders Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Tries: Tom Donnelly, Vilimoni Delasau, Roy Kinikinilau. Conversions: Nick Evans (2). Penalties: Evans (2).
Blues Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Try: Nick Williams. Conversion: Luke McAlister. Penalties: Tasesa Lavea (2).
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Yellow card: Roy Kinikinilau (52min)