DEFENCE FORCE ONE
NZ Rugby World|Issue 207, October - November 2020
THE BLUES WERE A RADICALLY DIFFERENT TEAM IN 2020 AND MUCH OF THAT WAS DUE TO THEIR VASTLY IMPROVED WORK ON DEFENCE.

The final table didn't reflect that the Blues were probably 10 minutes of concentration away from being possible Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.

There's no doubt, if they had been more alert and more urgent in the final quarter of their clash against the Crusaders in Christchurch, they would have won that game and it would have been the Blues and not the Hurricanes who brought the champions' incredible home record to an end.

Forgotten now in the weeks that have elapsed since the Crusaders won their fourth consecutive title, is that the Blues were leading that much-anticipated game 15-9 with 26 minutes to go.

It was more than that, though as the Blues were in control of possession and of territory. They were playing better. They were confident and they were dominating.

But after Rieko Ioane barged over to push them out in front, their lead evaporated all too quickly.

They made the age-old mistake of switching off after scoring and Richie Mo'unga was able to collect his own short kick off and spark a period of pressure that led to Mitch Drummond putting the Crusaders ahead. A position from which they never looked back.

That game in Christchurch was illustrative of the wider picture at the Blues in 2020: they have come so far yet are still not quite where they need to be.

They have improved out of sight in many facets, but still don't quite have the collective poise, experience and belief to finish what they start against the very best.

Still, what's beyond dispute is that they are a vastly different team to the one they have been in the last 17 years.

The improvements are everywhere and obvious. The pack has gone from being big but relatively soft, to big and full of crunch. They win their lineout ball, hold their scrums, and challenge at the breakdown. And they make big tackles. Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tuungafasi were the two best tackling tight forwards in the competition and both would have a fair claim to be considered among the best in the world at driving back ball carriers and hurting them.

The backs had more structure and awareness of where to attack. They had better decision-making all-round and the tactical control was a big reason they put teams under more pressure.

But what was really at the heart of their revival was their defence. This was the greatest area of improvement. The statistics tell part of the story.

The Blues conceded 149 points in the competition, just one more than the Crusaders. The Blues leaked 16 tries while the Crusaders saw 13 scored against them.

So the two were comparable on the raw data and that was an enormous turnaround for the Blues who had the worst defensive record of all New Zealand teams in 2019.

Last year they finished with a negative points differential and could be relied upon to make basic defensive errors at crucial times.

There was none of that in 2020. They held their shape for 80 minutes. Against the Chiefs at Eden Park, they were under siege and produced a stunning effort that saw them successfully defend their line for close to 10 minutes.

The tackling was low, accurate and effective and the discipline was mostly good and for all the improvements they made in using the ball, at the heart of everything they did in 2020, was their work without the ball.

The campaign ended up being a personal triumph for former head coach Tana Umaga who shifted to defensive coordinator in 2019.

“I think it's a combination of all those things,” says Umaga in regard to what drove the defensive improvement in 2019. All those things to which he refers include better systems, better understanding of the systems and a much improved desire by the players to invest their souls in the jersey.

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