Traditionally a rugby powerhouse, the Auckland side have suffered for a long time – initially from fly-half deficiencies that gradually spread to a general malaise – but they might have reached a turning point at last. They have recruited heavily to strengthen the positions surrounding the fly half this season with Augustine Pulu and Sonny Bill Williams making the move from the Chiefs to the Blues via the All Black Sevens to fill the scrum half and centre positions.
As impressive as that duo is – and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t – both are powerful runners with a dangerous ability to break teams with the offload, and preternatural lateral agility in defence as well as attack, the primary playmaking role retains a large degree of uncertainty around it. With Piers Francis joining up with the England squad after a mediocre year, the inconsistent (you might notice inconsistency being a theme soon) Ihaia West not sufficiently recovered from injury to return to the starting line-up, and Bryn Gatland discarded after a few uninspiring Super Rugby performances, the mantle has fallen on the talented Stephen Perofeta to face the Lions in his first ever start for the Blues. After only playing a handful of minutes this season due to injury, his run on debut comes tomorrow morning. The Lions should feel encouraged by this; no matter how talented Perofeta is, he has never played a minute with either Pulu or Sonny Bill Williams in a competitive match, and Gatland will be confident that his power game (yeah, he’s not going to follow through on any of his other talk) can exploit any lack of cohesion or chinks in the debutant’s defence. Given this vulnerability, expect Pulu and Sonny Bill Williams to favour the inside channel slightly and this will open up the opportunity for the Lions to exploit space out wide if they use decoy runners. **Sidebar: it’ll be interesting to see how Sonny Bill Williams goes tomorrow, especially in the context of him fasting for Ramadan at present**
I don’t expect the Lions to adopt this tactic often but if they do, there are two ways for the Blues to overcome this. The first would be for Pulu and Sonny Bill to play the game of their lives, with Pulu patrolling the inside channel like a particularly psychotic, menacing, under-sized bouncer, and for Sonny Bill to play to the limits of his extremely underrated sideline-to-sideline defensive game. The other, much simpler, option is to trust Perofeta’s ability to defend his channel, with Pulu taking care of the fringes of the ruck, allowing Blake Gibson to help Perofeta stop the runners in their tracks. The problem for the Lions here is that this is by no means a fool proof strategy. Perofeta has shown no signs of being a turnstyle in defence at any level to date, and while playing at the highest level of the game brings its own unique challenges, he may very well prove a willing and able defender in his own right. If he can manage that, it’ll be a major boost for the Blues and their defensive structure.
Defence is only half the battle for Perofeta though. A running fly half who is excellent in broken play, he isn’t the style of playmaker you would think is ideally suited to unleashing the plethora of talented power runners the Blues have. Faumuina, Tuipoluto, the Ioanes, Luatua, Gibson, Sonny Bill, and Moala can wreak havoc up the middle against any defence given a playmaker who stands flat and delivers the ball to them in the best spot to cross over the gainline but in the early stages of his career, Perofeta has shown signs of being a fly half who prefers to come onto the ball from depth and use his running game to spark attacking play. The good news for the Blues is that they do have an alternative as a primary playmaker in a player who has basically had to play that role all season so far. Augustine Pulu has a unique set of responsibilities compared to the other scrum halves in Super Rugby, with only Aaron Smith coming close for the demands placed on him by his team, albeit with the assistance of a world class fly half. As the responsibility to direct play falls on Pulu, you’ll see that he takes far longer to clear the ball from the breakdown than his counterparts from the other Kiwi franchises. Pulu doesn’t, and won’t have, the option of clearing the ball at speed to a first receiver who is comfortable with directing the play for prolonged periods of time, which leads to him needing to direct his runners before releasing the ball from the ruck: this is a huge area of opportunity for the Lions. If they can use this extra time to slow the Blues ball down even further, it will allow them to fill any gaps in their defensive structure, and prevent the Blues from breaking the line with regularity. The other side of the coin here is that Pulu is a magnificent runner in broken play and will take on any opportunity to snipe around the fringes of the ruck, so if the Lions do overcommit and fail to slow the ball down, Pulu can draw the defenders inwards with his running game. Let this happen, and the Lions will have to pick their poison in cover defence: cover the support runners (and there will be plenty) and rely on the defensive back court to stop the best running scrum half New Zealand has to offer, or sell out to stop the break as soon as possible and risk Pulu keeping the ball alive – something he has a gift for – and getting it out to Perofeta and co.
The key to helping this exchange fall in the Blues favour takes an unexpected form: not many Super Rugby fans knew much about Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti prior to this season but there’s a reason that Patrick Tuipoluto starts the match on the bench. Both second rows have been consistently (rare for Blues locks in years past) excellent (rarer still in Blues locks over the years), matching masochistic work rates with solid play with ball in hand. Don’t be surprised if you see one or the other seemingly hitting every ruck: they’re sneakily athletic and, for a pair of 24 year olds, mature in the darker arts around the breakdown. The Blues will need colossal efforts from their locking duo to help Pulu get a clear ruck area. Manage this, and the whole game gets a lot easier for the Blues, frustrating the Lions and forcing them to commit more and more players to slow the Blues ball down, pushing the Lions defence closer to the breakdown.
Just as important a challenge for Scrafton and Cowley-Tuioti will come in the lineout. Disrupting the Lions ball would give the Blues a valuable advantage but the priority will be protecting their own ball. Facing an athletic Lions duo who are highly capable of making a mess of any creaking lineout, the Blues pair will be thankful for having a loose forward trio who are all reliable lineout options. Luatua is an exceptional jumper who may very well end up being the primary target, Akira Ioane provides an explosive option who can catch the Lions off guard, and Blake Gibson rounds off a five jumper lineout with a McCaw like option with his combination of height and athleticism in the open side position. If Parsons can make his throws, and having five options will help immensely, the Blues can go blunt the effectiveness of Itoje and Lawes, and look to turn the pressure onto Ken Owens instead.
As talented as the Blues backline is, there is an argument that the best part of their team is their backrow. Kara Pryor, who has had limited game time this season, stood out last season with some dominating performances towards the latter end of the season but, like Tuipoluto, can only make the bench after the standout performances offered up by his teammates. What Pryor will offer off the bench is an explosive flanker who carries the ball hard but also with skill and vision, without making any compromises on defence who’ll provide impact whenever he steps onto the field. The starting trio, however, have been on a different level altogether. Akira Ioane has had questions about his work rate in the past but has shown signs of “putting it all together” lately, combining his physicality in tight with his ability to provide a genuine mismatch out wide: other forwards are too slow to catch him, and backs just don’t seem to be able to tackle him. Add a little consistency and experience and you get his Number 8, Steven Luatua. It’s a great shame that Luatua will spend next season tearing up the Championship with Bristol, especially as he had forced his way back into All Black contention with his dominant showings this year. Luatua, like Ioane, is devastating out wide and is one of the most skilled forwards with ball in hand in the world today. With that said, and despite the massive hype around Akira, the most intriguing backrow prospect the Blues have is Blake Gibson. There are shades of McCaw in Gibson’s game: a never-ending fuel tank, tall and athletic enough to jump in the lineout without his size compromising any of his ability at the breakdown, and great game management, Gibson leaves nothing to be desired with ball in hand either. Last season, in his run on debut for the Blues, he broke the line in the opening minutes of the Super Rugby campaign before running right over Ben Smith on his way to a score, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he puts his name into the same hat as Ardie Savea and Sam Cane.
The potential problem players for the Lions in the Blues forward pack don’t finish there. The Blues front row trio are skilful when it comes to keeping the ball alive in contact – Charlie Faumuina even had three offload try assists in a single game this year(!!!) James Parsons and Tu’ungafasi might be less capable in comparison but that’s like saying that King Kong isn’t really big compared to Godzilla (of all the movie references I could make, I somehow walk into that one). Tu’ungafasi has shown one weakness over the past couple of years that the Lions could use to gain a decisive advantage though: as a tall prop, he has struggled to keep his feet on occasion at scrum time, and he finds it almost impossible to stop giving away penalties once he starts so it’ll be critical for the Blues for him to stay clear of trouble in the scrum if the Blues are to win this game.
Seeing as I’ve already anointed the backrow as the Blues’ most effective contingent, it seems a little strange to finish on their backline until you consider what they bring to the party. Rieko “the freako” Ioane is as good as any outside back in the world on his day, which is some compliment for a player who only turned twenty a couple of months ago, and his day seems to come around more and more often. Blessed with a devastating change of direction while not seeming to slow down at all, he seems to reach top speed in a flash and is a nightmare to bring down. On the other wind, Matt Duffie recovered from a nightmare debut season last year after crossing code to Union to win my nomination for the most improved player in Super Rugby. Duffie seems to beat the first defender at will and comes in off his wing to look for work, sometimes as first receiver and other times running the inside channel before exploding out on the overlap. His strength under the high ball will help the Blues if the Lions take the aerial approach, and he has a great understanding with Michael Collins on the counterattack. Collins is the glue that holds the backline together with his solid defence and kicking game. While I think that the Blues are making a mistake by holding their best fullback on the bench in Melani Nanai, there are shades of an early Ben Smith to Collins so far. Dependable and seemingly not very spectacular, he just seems to “do the right thing” over and over again. Nanai will be eager to get onto the field however, and regardless of where he plays in the back three, he will look to roam across the width of the pitch to get his hands on the ball and launch attacks.
Having read this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Lions have no chance of beating such an exciting, athletic group of prospects and stars but the Lions are the prohibitive favourites for a reason. There’s a lot of uncertainty around how Perofeta will play and given that few, if any, of the Lions players who took part in the opening tour match will see the field tomorrow morning, it’d be unwise to prescribe their failings to the squad for this game. If, like me, you find Greig Laidlaw to be a mediocre option at scrum half in comparison to the other 9s on tour, and find players like Maro Itoje to be significant upgrades on the likes of Alun-Wyn Jones at this stage of his career, you’ll agree that the Lions have enough to overcome a team that is likely to encounter cohesion issues of their own. If the Lions put the Blues under pressure early, the Blues’ worst tendencies could resurface; crumbling in the scrum, and unable to get their platoon of dangerous runners going in attack.
While the Lions are rightly the clear favourites, there is a clear path to victory for the Blues and it might not be the open, “attack from everywhere” approach fans may assume. The open, attacking running game can leave you prone to conceding scores on the counterattack if the ball is spilled (or maybe that only happens when Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps are the halfbacks), and it almost plays into the Gatland’s preferred strategy of soaking up pressure in defence before taking advantage of opposition mistakes. The Blues may very well be better served playing in the Highlanders mould – kicking in behind the Lions to force them to kick the ball out to a Blues attacking lineout and the one-on-one opportunities for the backs that this would provide, attacking kicks for the likes of Duffie and Collins to compete for, forcing the Lions to build play from deep in their own half and pressure them to kick the ball away to a back three that can be lethal on the counterattack. Perofeta is talented enough to pull this kind of game plan off, and it would open up space for him to run the ball when the Blues do have possession – and if the Lions let that happen, we might get to see the birth of a star.