WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Blues have the chance to seal first place in Super Rugby Pacific when they play the second-place Brumbies on Saturday in the 14th of 15 regular-season rounds.
The Auckland-based Blues currently are atop the table with 50 points after 11 straight wins. The Canberra-based Brumbies are seven points behind in a share of second spot with the Christchurch-based Crusaders.
A win for the Blues in Australia's capital on Saturday would place them out of reach of their closest rivals and likely set up a home quarterfinal against the Dunedin-based Highlanders.
The Blues are coming off an impressive 53-26 win over the Queensland Reds, who previously were the second-best team in Australia. Almost every aspect of their game clicked neatly into place last weekend except, perhaps, some momentary lapses in defense.
The Blues forward pack is operating well, their backrow is both quick and powerful and playmakers Finlay Christie, Beauden Barrett and Stephen Perofeta are expertly managing a backline bulging with pace and talent. They have a strong attacking instinct, scoring eight tries against the Reds.
“The best thing is we understand the fundamentals or the important things we must nail before all that stuff happens,” Barrett said. “We work hard on those basic skills.
“We know how talented our boys are, and the things we can do but we can’t do that without doing the basics well, training hard and nailing it out on the field as well.”
Flanker Tom Robinson has been prominent in the Blues’ recent transformation. Before they won the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title last year, the Blues had gone 18 years without a championship in the southern hemisphere's premier inter-provincial competition. For many years they had been unable to compete against other New Zealand franchises or win away from home.
That has changed this year and the Blues haven’t lost since a one-point defeat to the Wellington-based Hurricanes in Round 2. They still have occasional defensive lapses, and conceded four tries against the Reds. But they have been able to focus for longer periods, overcoming the second half fall-off in standard which until recently had been a feature of their game.
“There’s no miracle thing that’s happened. It’s what’s been building over the last few years,” Robinson told news website Stuff. “A lot of it is belief and confidence.
"It’s not that we know we’re going to win but we know how to win and we know what winning looks like and it’s becoming part of our culture.”
The Brumbies have to lift their game after making too many costly errors against the Crusaders, or risk slipping down the standings. They will be helped on Saturday by the return of flyhalf Noah Lolesio, who missed the Crusaders match.
“We reviewed the Crusaders game thoroughly and while we were disappointed with our error count, there were plenty of positives out of that game,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said. “Pleased to have Noah back this week and excited to see (flanker) Luke Reimer get a start for what should be a cracking game.”
The round kicks off with the Crusaders meet the Fijian Drua and the Reds at home against Moana Pasifika. The Hamilton-based Chiefs face the Western Force on Saturday and, like the Crusaders, are aiming to consolidate home quarterfinals.
The Hurricanes take on the Melbourne Rebels at home on Saturday and the Highlanders are at home on Sunday against the New South Wales Waratahs.
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