If Tana Umaga didn’t understand how much scrutiny he will face as Blues coach, he sure does now. And all it took for him to create mass hysteria was to make a few changes to a winning team.
Adages die harder than John McClane, and that’s especially true of those that apply to rugby union. One of them is “you don’t fuck with a winning team”, which, amazingly, has reared its cliched head in the last twenty-four hours on the back of Tana Umaga making six changes – SIX WHOLE CHANGES – to his Blues starting fifteen for this Friday’s match against the Crusaders.
Yes, Tana fucked with his team’s line-up.
Quite why people are astonished, astounded and/or bewildered is beyond me. There are a couple of reasons: first, before last Friday, very few pundits thought anyone would be talking about the Blues as a winning team and, second, you would have thought that after years of ‘rotation’ as a (hugely successful) All Blacks strategy, we may have become accustomed to a full-squad system which, when applied well, actually works.
Perhaps it’s just a Blues thing. After all, the two-time champion Chiefs are renowned for making wholesale changes on a weekly basis, yet Dave Rennie’s selection whims have never been given the grilling Umaga’s have received in just his second tournament week. One headline read: “Blues Take Major Gamble”. But is it really a major gamble?
Worse, no sooner had the team been released yesterday than one broadcaster actually compared Tana Umaga to Sir John Kirwan – the former coach who oversaw arguably the biggest decline in the Blues performance since the team cracked the shits with David Nucifora and sent him back to Australia. How is it even possible to make that kind of comparison after one (winning) week?
There was wailing, gnashing of teeth, shaking of fists, general howls of despair; there may even have been a loose and evolving plan to form a mob and descend on Blues HQ. As usual, there was little said specifically about what these changes might mean in the context of a game, so allow us to calmly guide you through Umaga’s crazy* plan, so we can all stay calm.
Jerome Kaino in, Joe Edwards out
Joe Edwards didn’t do much wrong on Friday night. Ran often (for some tough metres, too) and made three tackles. Edwards is in the wider training group and with respect to him he probably wouldn’t have started on Friday had Kaino not been suspended. This substitution should be removed from the discussion, because KAINO IS THE DAMN CAPTAIN! Of course he starts.
This is such a given that, in reality, Umaga’s only made five changes.
Quentin McDonald in, James Parsons out
This kind of selection happens all the time with hookers. It’s a case of what’s best against a certain opponent. If I could offer a more succinct argument it would be, “nothing to see here, please disperse”. At the Crusaders, the choice is between the more dynamic and athletic Codie Taylor or the more physical and defensively-minded Ben Funnell. At the Chiefs it’s a toss up between Hika Elliot (when fit), Nathan Harris, and the more conservative Rhys Marshall. Rotating hookers is not news. It’s just good business.
Billy Guyton in, Bryn Hall out
Amazingly, and going back to the adage thing, last week almost every conversation about the Blues devolved into the usual bullshit about them not having a nine or a ten. Nek minnit, Hall puts up an assured performance that includes six runs for 21 metres and a try assist, and now no-one can believe he’s been benched.
Except, you have to hand it to Guyton, who closed out the game with a run and gun routine of his own, putting up four carries for more metres (32 in total) than Hall. Guyton has been picked to mess with Andy Ellis’s head, and the inside defence. It’s a legit call.
Matt McGahan in, Ihaia West out
Let’s start by reviewing the first point on Bryn Hall above. Okay, now let’s move on. McGahan played two minutes of code against the Highlanders, and that was as a fullback so any attempt to give this some statistical relevance would be silly. McGahan has, however, put together an entire pre-season campaign as Guyton’s partner, so if you think about how important Guyton’s job is on Friday night, then it makes sense to buddy him up.
Bryn Hall and Ihaia West on a tiring Crusaders defence? That’s a great bench option.
Rene Ranger in, Male Sa’u out
Oh please, don’t tell me you didn’t want to see this! Ranger, Sa’u and Moala are the Blues’ midfield three-card trick. Take one off, put another one on, watch the carnage. Get used to it – this change falls into the same category as the Kaino one. In other words, Umaga has really only made four changes, which is not even news.
Matt Duffie in, Lolagi Visinia out
Renowned as one of the best kick receivers in the NRL, Matt Duffie comes into a game against a team that kicked the crap out of it against the Chiefs (making a conference-high 30 kicks in play in round one) and one which loves to play without the ball (they claimed just 12 minutes in possession in round one), and one that hasn’t made a single personnel change. Matt Duffie may be on debut but this is a dream for a fullback who loves getting a touch. As Damian McKenzie showed last week.
Of course, if the Blues lose then Umaga should quit immediately.