The relief in Blues head coach Pat Lam’s voice was palpable.
Lambasted by the press and many fans on www.theblues.co.nz last week following consecutive losses, Lam was held personally accountable for the Blues’ particularly poor performance against the Chiefs last week.
But without a number of key players including Jerome Kaino, Rudi Wulf, Isaia Toeava and Tony Woodock, Lam’s troops fronted up against the mighty Bulls and defeated them 29-23 at Loftus Versfeld in a character filled performance on Sunday.
It was a brilliant way for the Blues to answer their critics and Lam was thrilled with the way his players stepped up under pressure.
“The boys had to front up and perform and I’m really proud of the effort they put in, it was a big win for us and it gets us started,” Lam said.
“It’s round three, we should have won the first one against the Crusaders and last week were disappointing, we knew that.
“It was a big challenge for us because it’s been nine years since the Blues have won their first game on tour in South Africa and only one team has beaten the Bulls here in three and a half years so we put a lot of work into it.
“We worked out our game plan while we were in Sydney overnight and then selected the team accordingly and had a very good preparation.”
Making his run-on debut for the Blues, 20-year-old Gareth Anscombe had a superb game and collected all 29 of his team’s points with two tries, two conversions and seven penalties.
Lam was full of praise for the promising youngster who overshadowed his more fancied opposite number Morne Steyn.
“I thought it was an outstanding effort, we’ve known he’s had that talent but we wanted to nurture that a bit,” he said.
“For (assistant coach) Bryce Woodward and myself we purposely waited for Ma’a to get here and Piri to start so to play in between those two was a big help for him.
“Everyone saw what an outstanding game he had and it was good to see an Auckland first five come through and play extremely well.”
Lam said the key to Sunday morning’s victory was fronting up physically against a fearsome Bulls forward pack.
“The big one was around our defence and knocking them over, we knew that we were poor in contact last week and we needed to front up with the attitude. There was a mindset all week around our attitude and what we brought to the contact area and if we couldn’t put in the big hits we at least needed to go around the legs and cut them down because they’re big boys as everyone knows.
“The boys defended extremely well and we balanced that with having a lot of the ball, solid defence and a good balance of our kicking game.”
The Blues were eager to chance their arm and throw the ball around deep in their own 22, but it almost backfired on a number of occasions with players knocking the ball on and handing it back to the opposition in dangerous territory.
However Lam said part of the game plan was to hold onto the ball more, refusing to kick it into the hands of the lethal Bulls back three or putting it into touch and allowing their rolling maul to build up a head of steam.
“The Bulls like to sit back and wait for you to kick, and if you kick it down to them they’ll come back at you, if you kick it out they’ll get their lineout and maul going and if you kick it deep to them they’ll come back and bomb you in your own 22 which they’re used to.
“So for us it was about moving it to the wider channels and kicking it from out wider because when you move it their back three start to come up. We were just a couple of passes away from doing that but we’d sometimes lose it.
“We trained a lot from our own half so the boys were comfortable doing it and more importantly there was a real belief that if it’s on let’s have a go so I don’t mind if guys are trying things and mistakes happen. It’s obviously not what you want but it was really important we had a positive frame of mind and didn’t play with fear.”
The Blues will certainly cherish a rare victory at Loftus Versfeld but they will need to quickly regroup against an undefeated Stormers side coming off the bye.
“We’re pretty happy but it’s a big week coming up,” Lam said.
“The Stormers have had a week off this week and we’ve got a six day turnaround and we’ve got to regroup and get going again.”
The Blues will be sweating on the availability of wing Rene Ranger for the clash after he was awarded a yellow and white card for flying into Bjorn Basson who was in the act of diving to score a try in the final play of the game.
Already low on backs with Isaia Toeava, Rudi Wulf, George Moala and Michael Hobbs back in New Zealand, it will be an anxious 24 hours for the Blues before Ranger finds out his fate.
Wider Training Group wing Ben Lam joined the squad in Africa late last week.
“We’ll know when the new white card goes to the citing officer and we’ll wait and see over the next 24 hours if anything is going to be made of it,” Lam said.
“But I’ll be disappointed if it is because Rene was going full speed and Basson was going full speed and he was diving to try and knock him into touch and take him out in the corner.”
The Blues face the Stormers at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on Saturday morning (kick off 6.10am NZT).