Foxy fans the flames around Blues

Grant Fox, writing in the Sunday Star Times, insists that Auckland rugby should not be confused with what the Blues have offered in the Vodacom Super 14. Auckland and the Blues, says Fox, are not the same thing.

If I have one more person say to me “What’s wrong with Auckland rugby?” I’m going to scream.

Let me give it to you straight: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH AUCKLAND RUGBY. Sorry to shout but I am at my wits end.

Auckland has won three of the last four NPC titles. From where I’m looking I’m not seeing too much wrong at all. But ask me what’s wrong with Blues rugby and that’s an entirely different proposition.

Auckland and the Blues are not the same team. They are different teams and different brands.

Not convinced?

Well, think Canterbury and the Crusaders. You can mount a stronger and more credible argument around “what is wrong with Canterbury rugby?” than you can about Auckland. Crusaders rugby has been magnificent. Canterbury rugby, less so. Canterbury’s recent and historical NPC record pales alongside Auckland’s.

So, with that off my chest, back to the topic: what is going on with Blues rugby? I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest there are two major problems. The most obvious is the current playing style. The second is the strategic direction being taken by the franchise.

Let’s deal with the former first. On current showings, it’s unlikely the Blues will make the play-offs. They almost certainly won’t if they persevere with a game plan that appears conservative and limited. Put bluntly, the Blues aren’t playing much rugby.

We all know that it starts up front with set piece stability so you can launch attacking plays from there. We’re not seeing that stability at either scrum or lineout. When the Blues secure lineout ball they almost exclusively drive it. The Crusaders drive lineouts too, but are more likely to go wide off that ball and leave it to the backs to secure possession at the next phase. The Blues instead, almost every time, launch an inside channel raid off that lineout drive.

This is a limited ploy as you’re asking your forwards to quickly extricate themselves from one drive and make it to the next phase in a concerted and possession- protective way.

The problem when you constantly attack down inside channels is you run into gentlemen like Jerry Collins and Chris Masoe who not only hit hard but are on their feet and immediately contesting for the ball. While there is plenty of variation in the Blues’ lineout, there is little numbers variation, meaning short lineouts which are a great platform to attack from. The lineout driving issue and lack of set piece stability compromises the Blues’ attack options. The problem is then exacerbated by backs who are too lateral in their running lines and are therefore failing in what are either poorly designed or poorly executed attacks. Inside defenders are not being committed and the drift defence is easily containing the attackers.

It gets worse when forwards are stationed in the backline with the purpose of creating continuous phase play, a standard tactic in modern rugby. Those Blues forwards are running back into heavy defensive traffic, again putting possession at risk.

Where is the “roll-ball” play with a second wave of attackers behind dummy runners? The No. 8- 9-10 axis is getting a lot of criticism but I’m not sure it’s all deserved. Tasesa Lavea is not a player to naturally kick away possession. He must be operating under instructions. That brings us to coaching. I am on the outside looking in and having coached, I am reluctant to criticise.

The game plan may well have more scope than I’m seeing but the players aren’t implementing or executing it effectively. If so, the coaches must address that quickly.

To the second point, the wider problem with the Blues. We’re trying to knit three first division unions together and a lot of good people are working very hard to create a new culture and identity that is clearly independent of each of those unions.

It’s admirable but it’s not going to work. Sometimes you need to learn from history. Every time the Blues won a Super 12 title it was preceded by an Auckland NPC win.

Graham Henry was involved in a coaching capacity for all three. The playing style and culture was predominantly the same as the NPC environment and the bulk of players were from Auckland.

What I see is an obsession with taking a group of Auckland NPC players and a handful of Northland and North Harbour guys and trying to enforce upon them a new game plan, identity and culture. Why not use a best practice model?

Maybe instead of trying to convert everybody, they should be starting with the proven Auckland ethos and adapt the others. And, by the way, I am still advocating using the best players irrespective of which union they come from.

The Chiefs have Waikato NPC coach Warren Gatland as their technical adviser to ensure continuity between teams and competitions. The Auckland NPC set-up has no link to the current Blues coaching staff.

There’s a lesson there.