Since winning the last of their three titles in 2003, the Blues have made the playoffs just twice. The most recent occasion was 2011, with the team finishing 12th, 10th, 10th, 14th, 11th and ninth in the years since. Saturday’s season-ending 48-21 capitulation to the Sunwolves in Tokyo would rank among the worst defeats suffered in that time.
You assume all concerned at the franchise are working hard to succeed. It’s just that the results don’t suggest a great deal of progress is being made.
Set-piece stability, an obvious gameplan and genuine on-field leadership have been among the issues and it’s hard to see how that will change greatly next year. Outstanding tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina is off to France, Steven Luatua - a regular source of lineout ball - will be in England and the unproven Otere Black has been recruited from the Hurricanes to steer the ship.
You look at the Blues and see talent and promise, but few players ever appear to kick on from their encouraging beginnings. Recruitment, coaching, culture; it’s hard to isolate a single root cause for it.
The most curious aspect is the absence of an outcry. Auckland is a big place and the Blues were New Zealand’s standard-bearers during Super Rugby’s early years.
You’d think the franchise could do much better and that people would care that it wasn’t.
Brumbies-Hurricanes (played last night)
Those ‘fat’ Hurricanes, eh? How people chuckled when the Brumbies thrashed them 52-10, in round one of the 2016 season.
Teams latch on to any number of things to motivate themselves. Last year’s outcome - and name-calling - in Canberra aren’t the only things focusing the Hurricanes’ attention ahead of Friday’s game, but they’re not far down the list.
The Hurricanes’ scrum got pushed around that night too, which remains a source of embarrassment.
Assistant coach John Plumtree said this week that the team don’t care what people think of them. In reality, there are few slights not taken to heart and stored away and you can expect to see a very emotional Hurricanes team on display at GIO Stadium.
Teams always want to win but, in this case, beating the Brumbies is as much a matter of soothing still-wounded pride as progressing to the semifinals.
Would love to know what neutrals think of this one.
Crusaders fans will be sure their lot are going to win, while the Highlanders’ faithful will feel they’re due. They’ve certainly had the beating of this Crusaders team a couple of times this year, only to be pipped at the death.
People have waited to see some vulnerability in the Crusaders and their last three outings have provided it. Beaten by the British and Irish Lions, they lost to the Highlanders in an international-window friendly and then suffered their first defeat in a competition game to the Hurricanes last week.
They’ll tell themselves that only the Hurricanes game had even the remotest relevance, but a loss is still a loss.
I’m going to predict low-scoring nailbiter, with the Crusaders narrowly prevailing. Their forward pack is just such a juggernaut and rattling on points, or even stringing phases together, isn’t easy on the heavy AMI Stadium.
Tempting to put in the who cares basket.
Whatever the Lions do this year will be tainted by the fact they’re yet to face a New Zealand foe this season. A home finals run is a huge advantage to last year’s beaten finalists, but we all know it’s been artificially won.
Very familiar ground for the Chiefs, who went to Cape Town this time last year and thrashed the hosts 60-21 in a quarterfinal. On that occasion it was the Stormers’ first exposure to a New Zealand team for the season.
Since then they’ve been back to Newlands and lost 34-26, in one of the more open and frenetic matches of this season.
Any team with Brodie Retallick in it starts most games favourites, but this will be a challenge. It might be that the Damian McKenzie’s irresistible recent form can tip the balance in the Chiefs’ favour.