It won’t surprise anyone who watched the Crusaders gatecrash their 2022 Super Rugby Pacific grand final party in the most brutal way to learn the Blues aren’t taking much from their remarkable 60-20 season-opening victory over the Highlanders apart from five competition points and a determination to improve.
The were good under the roof in Dunedin on Saturday, whereas the Highlanders, after a competitive first half in which they fought back to trail 31-20 at halftime, were a little naïve in terms of their decision making and less than good with their defending.
And yet while assistant coach Daniel Halangahu believes his side were a little “off”, there was no getting away from wing Mark Telea’s excellence.
At the end of last year, the 26-year-old was a minor revelation with the All Blacks over two Tests against Scotland and England and he has carried that form into 2023 with a stunning performance for the Blues which augurs well for his World Cup dreams, as well as the Blues of going one better this season.
The statistics tell part of the story: Telea scored two tries against the Highlanders, ran with the ball for a stunning 202m and, just as impressively, beat 13 defenders, averaging one every time he got the ball.
He was simply too hot to handle - a form streak he puts down to preparing well mentally and physically.
Being recognised for higher honours has also clearly agreed with him.
“It builds confidence,” he said today of his All Blacks selection. “You just want to play at your best.
“It was massive for myself, my family, the club and the coaches. They put a lot of effort into me. Once you get the chance you have to take it in two hands and not look back.”
But he, too, cautioned: “You look at the score and could get carried away, thinking you can show up the next week and just throw the ball around. We just have to get back to our basics, our fundamentals, what’s been working for us. That will be the key focus for us.”
For Halangahu, hard work was the key to Telea’s form and two Test caps last year.
“Some of the guys are screaming talents,” he said. “If you went and watched Caleb Clarke or Rieko Ioane when they were running around playing school footy here in Auckland you could tell what they were destined for. Mark wasn’t one of those. His story is long and it takes a lot of twists and turns.
“He went into the Harbour academy in 2015 and made plenty of mistakes but he learns from them and works hard.
“He wasn’t naturally as gifted as some of the other guys in terms of his skillset. He didn’t grow up playing rugby – I think he was seen in the schoolyard running away from the teacher, I think that was when he was first noticed for his ability to avoid people.
“I can’t speak highly enough of his work ethic. He’s learned a lot of these things.
“These aren’t things that he had as a 15-year-old…. He’s just worked his butt off and is starting to reap the reward for that hard work.
“We’re proud of seeing him grow and become an All Black but he has to earn that again. He’s clear on that. Just because he’s the incumbent right wing for the All Blacks means nothing. He has to earn the jersey and I know that was his mindset at the weekend.”
The Blues will prepare for the Brumbies in the competition’s Super round this weekend – every game is in Melbourne – high on confidence but potentially without loose forward Akira Ioane, who is getting scans on a knee injury – a medial ligament tweak.
Halangahu said Ioane was unlikely to travel.
As for the Blues’ performance during which, helped by Finlay Christie, Beauden Barrett, Stephen Perofeta and Caleb Clarke, they cut the Highlanders to shreds at times, Halangahu said guarding against complacency was important now.
“There’s outside noise that the score was large… and we were happy with our turnover attack and the way we punished the Highlanders when they dropped the ball.
“But there were plenty of areas that we weren’t great at - the breakdown, they harassed us there and slowed a lot of our ball. From our set piece we didn’t launch as well as we would have liked.
“The start of the season is a clunky time for a lot of things. With the start of the pre-season being what it is… it’s going to take a few weeks to work out where things are at. We saw that with the Crusaders. We’re definitely not getting ahead of ourselves.”