The Blues may have run in four fine tries to defeat the Hurricanes with a bonus point on Saturday night, but it was their defence that had the coaching staff beaming the most.
Rarely has Eden Park erupted into such rapturous applause for a defensive effort like the 23,387-strong crowd did when the Blues repelled wave after wave of Hurricanes attack late in the game on Saturday night.
After scoring 87 points in their previous to matches, the Hurricanes seemed primed to unleash their attacking weapons such as Julian Savea, Conrad Smith and TJ Perenara on the Blues.
However a magnificent defensive performance by the home side held the Canes tryless as the visitors could only manage a penalty and a drop goal over 80 minutes.
“We had to improve our defensive line and our speed into contact and we’ve been working very hard on that,” Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan said.
“Tonight we saw some pretty special team defence and then finishing it with some good hits and if we want to survive in this tournament that’s what we needed. The last three weeks we’ve been really concentrating on the last three yards into contact and it comes from confidence and working hard together.
“The proudest moment for me tonight was defending our line for five or six minutes at around the 65 minute mark and that typified the hard work the guys had been putting in and the awareness around each other’s roles so that was really pleasing.”
It was without doubt the finest Blues performance of the season as they showed fantastic flair in attack while being utterly resolute in defence. Kirwan said it all came down to how his side prepared during the week.
“We keep talking about consistency of performance is about consistency of preparation and it started on Monday,” he said.
“There was a real edge to the week so when you work hard and you get a result over and above what you were expecting we need to be buoyant and we need to really enjoy this evening.
“Then we need to keep our feet on the ground and get back to work tomorrow week because we’ve got a big one after that so we’ll enjoy the moment but there is still a lot to do.”
It was a particularly impressive night for flanker Steven Luatua. The up-and-coming blindside flanker was everywhere, throwing himself into tackles and rucks while also threatening with the ball in hand.
The 22-year-old is certainly displaying the sort of form that will have All Blacks selectors taking serious note, and Kirwan said if he continued to play like he did against the Hurricanes it would only be a matter of time before he’s wearing the black jersey.
“Steven has come a long way since the 1st December. I think he’s realised what it takes to be a loose forward – you’ve got to realise this kid has been playing lock and so he’s really starting to step up.
“We’ve been really challenging him every week to keep running and running around the corner so he’s learned how to empty the tank and he just runs himself until he’s got nothing left.
“He’s got a great physical presence and he can play with the ball in hand. He’s also stepping up defensively so he’s really well balanced at the moment and he’s just concentrating week by week.
“We all want to see our guys get rewarded for the hard work (by being selected for the All Blacks) but it’s important to put it over there and keep performing every week but I thought he was outstanding.”
Another player who caught Kirwan’s eye was bruising winger Frank Halai. All the pre-game hype had been about his opposite number Julian Savea, but Halai completely overshadowed the All Black with a strong all round performance.
“He really played the house down,” Kirwan said of Halai.
“Defensively this is a really smart footballer, you only have to tell him something once and he gets it. He cut down Julian’s space quickly, tackled him low and did all the right things which is hard because Julian’s been on big form.”
As satisfying as Saturday night’s victory was, Kirwan said it meant ‘nothing’ and that the team had two big matches ahead to prepare for after the bye.
“It means nothing, we’ve got the bye and then we’re into the Reds and the Stormers so it doesn’t stop.
“We’re a long way from where we want to be and we just need to enjoy this moment and then get in next week and make sure we prepare the same way because we’ve got a big ask going over to the Reds and we’ll need to improve on what we did tonight.”