Blues v Highlanders highlights. Video / Sky Sport
The Blues left the steadily building Eden Park hoping to further unleash their potent attacking threats, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck among them, yet knowing there must be another level to their title quest.
One would expect to
find Blues coach Leon MacDonald and stand-in skipper Beauden Barrett in a jubilant mood following the comfortable 35-6 quarterfinal victory in front of 23,500 against the Highlanders on Saturday night.
They instead cut largely subdued figures, despite Barrett bagging a brace, with sights firmly set on next week’s return to Eden Park for the semifinal against the Brumbies.
The Blues final four push will come without influential captain Dalton Papalii after he was hastened into surgery on Friday. While back on his feet rapidly, Papalii is expected to be sidelined for several weeks in a significant blow for the Blues.
“It was a bit of an emergency operation with his appendix,” MacDonald said after the Blues 14th straight victory this season. “He came in and spoke to the boys before kickoff which highlights how passionate he is around this group. We want him back as soon as possible but we’ll be guided by the doctors and I don’t know how long that’ll be Unfortunately.”
While the emphatic score suggests the Blues dominated every aspect against the Highlanders MacDonald is fully aware the Brumbies present a much sterner test than the 4-11 southerners.
Two weeks ago the Blues needed late heroics in the form of a Papalii breakdown steal and injury time Barrett drop goal to escape 21-19 against the Brumbies in Canberra. That contest was dogged by the locals infringing, slowing the ruck speed, squeezing and frustrating the Blues.
The Brumbies will now trek to Auckland after surviving a 20-minute red card to comeback and defeat the Hurricanes 35-25 in Canberra.
“We played the Brumbies a couple of weeks ago and that was a torrid game, especially around the breakdown they were brutal in there,” MacDonald said. “Some of the things we did tonight we probably won’t get away with next week so we’re expecting a good honest review. It’s a big week for us to get it right.”
Those areas include a jittery opening half hour where poor handling and discipline marred much of the Blues efforts, before a red card to Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio allowed Barrett the freedom to cut his backline loose for four of the Blues five tries.
“When we got go forward on the back of some good carries we saw some guys shine,” Barrett said. “It took a while to find our way to do that but we got there in the end.”
Tuviasa-Sheck was one of those. The former Warriors captain continues to make an impression in the No 12 jersey at the right time of the season, claiming his first try for the Blues, in his ninth match, and setting up Barrett’s second with a strong midfield bust to link with Rieko Ioane .
MacDonald could not hide his enthusiasm at the prospect of further improvement from Tuviasa-Sheck.
“He’s starting to play with a lot of freedom. He’s not thinking about where he needs to stand and what a spiral pass feels like,” MacDonald said. “He’s thinking about playing rugby and gets his eyes up. He gets excited when the ball is around him and he wants to play. It gives guys like Beauden the chance to let it go.
“Now he’s starting to be demanding of people around him when they’re not moving or calling for the ball. Tonight is another step forward. We need him to be that player. The leadership skills he’s shown for the Warriors he’s starting to bring that confidently to the Blues now.”
Caleb Clarke appears unlikely to return from his hamstring injury this week, with MacDonald suggesting it would be a push. Experienced utility Bryce Heem may also miss the semifinal after failing his HIA. Heem’s absence could be offset by AJ Lam’s impressive performance off the bench against the Highlanders.
Aside from demanding improvement in the start and scrum, where Highlanders loose head Ethan de Groot held the upper hand, MacDonald is intent on keeping a lid on the pressures attached to his side’s mounting favouritism.
“We speak about it. It’s really important we stick to our day-by-day focus. That’s our best way of getting to a final. It’s a formula that works for us. The extra external noise is starting to ramp up a bit which is even more reason for us to hone in on what’s important.
“It’s going to be survival of the fittest. Three brutal playoff games are going to take their toll on every team. There’s going to be a lot of injuries and you’re going to need a lot of guys ready to go.
“We’ll enjoy tonight because it was a nervy week but now we know we’re in a semifinal.”