It’s still early days but Blues hooker Keven Mealamu has a sneaking suspicion that Saturday’s clash with the Stormers could define their Super 14 season.
And as usual Mealamu, a veteran of eight campaigns in the blue jersey and a former skipper, mightn’t be too far off the mark.
Duncan Johnstone writes for RugbyHeaven that back to back losses have seen the Blues slip from first to fourth on the table. That slide needs to be arrested at Eden Park this weekend because if the Blues are to be title contenders they realise they can’t afford to be playing an away semifinal. A trip to Canterbury or South Africa for a knockout match later in the year has serious consequences as they well know.
Since the championship was expanded to 14 teams in 2006, the top qualifiers have lost one and three matches respectively and the second-placed teams have dropped three and four games.
The Blues are only five matches into their 13-game programme and they have already got two results in the loss column. It’s far too early to be talking about home semifinals but they realise they must rebound against the red-hot Stormers to stay on the playoffs pace.
It’s time for the Blues to make a statement and show they have the steel to be contenders.
“This is must win. It could be a defining point of our season. If we can turn it around here it could put us back up there again,” Mealamau tells RugbyHeaven.
“So this week is just about concentrating on the Stormers and getting back to playing our game. If we can do that I think we will be fine.”
Adding to the expectancy of the Blues rectifying things is that they are operating at their beloved Eden Park fortress. In a competition as cut-throat as the Super 14 you simply can’t afford to drop home games.
Albany is a home venue for the Blues but it hasn’t always been a happy one as they found out again last weekend when they collapsed against the Western Force.
“There’s nothing worse than losing at home – all your friends and family and supporters are there. I think the boys are really looking forward to putting things right this week.”
It was the Sharks who started the problems for the Blues with their win in Durban two rounds ago. And just as they did last year, the Sharks have started a bit of rot in the Blues’ campaign. But last year that didn’t set in till late in the championship. This time it has come early, giving David Nucifora’s side ample time to respond.
“We still have quite a few games to come, it’s still not the middle of the competition yet. We still have time to rectify things,” said Mealamu with real determination in his voice.
“It’s not big things either. We missed a couple of one on one tackles and they scored a try … a couple of times we didn’t get the last pass away and it really cost us. It’s just little things and if we get those details right we will be fine.”
The All Blacks hooker said statistics backed that up. As bad as the second half collapse against the Force may have looked, apparently it wasn’t as bad as the 27-17 scoreline suggested.
“Obviously the boys are very disappointed with the game. But we did our debrief and we were told from our stats that it was the best tackle percentage we have had all year and 15 linebreaks as well. We were just making crucial errors at crucial times.”
Mealamu says the changes in the game make scoring even more vital and the Blues realise the importance of that against a side like the Stormers who have strikepower right across the paddock.
“The rules make it so easy to get back into the game. Tries can come so quickly … you have to put teams away and that’s what we didn’t do against the Force. We need to make sure that if we do get chances (against the Stormers) we nail them.”
There’s no lack of respect for the Stormers in the Blues camp. The Africans beat the Blues last year in Cape Town and after losing their first three matches this year they have won their last two in Brisbane against the Reds and in Hamilton against the Chiefs.
The Stormers are boldly talking of completing a hat-trick against the Blues.
“Sometimes you think of a bit of payback,” said Mealamu in reference to last year’s Cape Town result. “But we have to look at our own personal improvement rather than looking at the other side.”
Nevertheless the Stormers’ attributes can’t be ignored as the Blues plan their revival.
“They went really well against the Reds and they have gone well on the road,” said Mealamu.
“They are quite different to the rest of the African teams. They have some good ball players and they aren’t afraid to use the ball wider if it’s on. The other African teams can be very direct – very simple but very effective. But these guys can play a few different ways … they can play wide but if they need to grunt it up they will.”
And the Stormers have Schalk Burger back in their midst. He proved too much for the Chiefs last week with his dynamic and tireless work at the breakdowns.
The Blues expect to have Daniel Braid in their ranks for his season debut as he returns from shoulder surgery.
“Burger definitely has a lot of presence when he is on the field. Braidy may be back in the 22 this week and that’s a big challenge for him coming back. But they are the confrontations you want as a player.”
It’s now just a question as to whether the Blues can front up to the confrontation of the Stormers.
The Blues are a better side than they have shown over the last two rounds, particularly last Saturday’s second half capitulation.
But Durban and Albany did show a brittle edge that has plagued recent campaigns.
It’s time to stop the rot.Tweet