Written by Max Sharp
Leon MacDonald can give himself a big pat on the back for doing such a brilliant job as the Blues' Head Coach. The team returned from COVID-19 illnesses to close out a hard-fought game against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, while away from home. As the commentators said, they likely would not have won a game like this a few years ago, so let's have a read on how the Blues were able to showcase this mental fortitude in a 32-25 win!
Blues Player Ratings
Loosehead Prop - Ofa Tu'ungafasi (7/10)
This game had a hard-fought battle at scrum time, so it was unusual for the team to select Tu'ungafasi in the number 1 jersey. He got to rucks with incredible pace to generate front-foot ball, though they were his only contribution to the stat board, his 11 tackles were the second-most of his team. 68-minute performance demonstrated great fitness too.
Hooker - Kurt Eklund (7/10)
The Highlanders definitely shut him down on attack (3 metres from 3 carries), but not on defence. Eklund's 7 tackles all hurt, while he did the team a favour with his turnover. The icing on the cake was strong lineout throwing, a solid performance.
Tighthead Prop - Marcel Renata (6/10)
Although Lienert-Brown got the better of Renata at the scrum he still found himself effective around the field. 9 metres off 4 carries isn't awful by any stretch, his early turnover was useful as well. Could definitely do more than 4 tackles.
Lock 4 - James Tucker (10/10)
Freak. His game was on another level to everyone else's, he ran a massive 66 metres, second-to-most of the game, to go with 2 clean breaks from his 6 carries. Tucker called the shots in the lineout as well, while he was tied with Papali'i for most tackles, with 12.
Lock 5 - Josh Goodhue (7/10)
Hard-working is the best description for Goodhue's performance. Was an industrious lineout jumper as usual, whilst his 8 tackles were the most of the game before he was subbed off for an HIA in the 37th minute. He did not come back on after failing it, get well soon mate.
Blindside Flanker - Tom Robinson (6/10)
Perhaps overshadowed by the rest of his forward pack a wee bit? Robinson was still useful though, his 8 metres were off a single carry, he gave 2 passes and made 7 tackles. The importance of him as the third lineout jumper remains, he collected every ball he contested.
Openside Flanker - Dalton Papali'i (7/10)
Leadership appears a natural thing for the 24-year-old captain, who was tied with Tucker for the most tackles. Made some good tactical calls as well, while he still ran 10 metres and beat a defender from 3 carries. Sam Cane's days as an All Black starter are now history thanks to Papali'i.
Number 8 - Hoskins Sotutu (8/10)
Sotutu definitely gave away some dumb penalties, his new-found consistency needs some admiration though. His running game was incredible again; he ran 38 metres, made a clean break and beat 6 defenders off 10 carries. Opened the game up with 6 passes and 2 offloads, while he did indeed make 10 tackles. Very good.
Halfback - Sam Nock (7/10)
Calmness was really invoked thanks to Nock's growing experience as a player. He remained focused on the core roles of his position and did them well, his 43 passes were slick. Only made 2 carries himself, but they did lead him to run 6 metres. 6 tackles was good too.
First-Five - Beauden Barrett (7/10)
Yes, the Blues allowed him to kick the goals, he was 2/3 for that. Though his need to kick possession away remains a feature of the 30-year-old's game, he did run 23 metres, make a clean break and beat 3 defenders from his 5 carries. Solid passing and defence before he failed his HIA early in the second half.
Left Wing - Caleb Clarke (8/10)
Clarke is probably on his way back to career-best form. His running game was powerful as ever, with a game-high 76 metres, a clean break and 6 defenders beaten, this was all off only 5 carries. A special mention to his work on defence; 4 tackles and 2 turnovers.
Second-Five - Bryce Heem (7/10)
He definitely isn't a long-term option for the 12 jersey, but Heem is playing well there. His attack lead to 35 metres and a clean break from only 4 carries, while his 8 tackles were the most of the Blues' backs. Won a turnover as well, good stuff.
Centre - Rieko Ioane (6/10)
The 24-year-old isn't standing out by any means, but has evolved from a teenage prodigy to an experienced player holding a backline together by playing consistently. His 29 metres were from only 2 carries, while he's passing more, he made 9 passes and 5 tackles.
Right Wing - Mark Telea (5/10)
Was his attack on fire? Yes. But did he make some mistakes? Yes. Telea ran 54 metres, beat 6 defenders and made a clean break from 7 carries, he also managed 6 passes and a turnover. I don't think I'd like to know his tackle ratio though, he missed tackles on both Daniel Lienert-Brown and Sam Gilbert when they scored their tries, Telea also made two bad knock ons. He had a game of two halves.
Fullback - Zarn Sullivan (7/10)
Having his presence at 15 is a huge strength to the Blues' team. Sullivan ran 32 metres and made a clean break from 5 carries, while he made 5 passes, 1 offload, 3 tackles and 1 turnover. A bit of an all-round performance to go with good kicking there.
Reserve Hooker - Ricky Riccitelli (No rating)
The number 16 came off the bench with 17 metres left and made 1 pass and 4 tackles. Can't give him a proper player rating for that.
Reserve Loosehead Prop - Jordan Lay (No rating)
Lay's second Blues game was just 12 minutes long. He's in the same situation as Riccitelli, you can't rate a tight-five forward after only 12 minutes.
Reserve Tighthead Prop - Nepo Laulala (4/10)
Everyone's allowed to have a bad game now-and-again. Only managed 2 tackles in 29 minutes despite the Highlanders' riches of possession percentage in the second half, while the height difference (12cm difference) between Laulala and Tu'ungafasi caused issues at scrum time.
Reserve Lock - Sam Darry (6/10)
He was the perfect replacement for Josh Goodhue, who came off with a concussion. 2 metres off 1 carry, 1 pass, 1 offload, 7 tackles and 1 turnover were Darry's stats and they were very much Goodhue-esque. He continues to improve by the game.
Reserve Loose Forward - Adrian Choat (No rating)
Choat came on for Robinson with 7 minutes left and made 2 tackles. Give him more game time next week.
Reserve Halfback - Taufa Funaki (No rating)
The 21-year-old New Zealand Schools alumni also came on with 7 minutes left. Once again, not enough game time to rate him.
Reserve Midfielder - Corey Evans (No rating)
One critique I have of Leon MacDonald's coaching is that his players don't get to be on the field long enough on debut. Evans replaced Zarn Sullivan with only 3 minutes left and didn't even get to touch the ball.
Reserve Utility Back - Stephen Perofeta (7/10)
In jersey 23, we saw Stephen Perofeta, coming off the bench to score a try and kick two conversions. He was an early replacement for the concussed Barrett and ran 8 metres, beat 1 defender and ran 1 clean break from 2 carries. I'm sure he'll be back at 10 next week.