The Blues dug themselves a bit of a hole in the first two weeks of the season. They lost two games that they were more than capable of winning against the Crusaders and the Chiefs. The first was close, but the second was a total disaster.
It seemed to get harder from there, with a two-game tour of South Africa against the Bulls and the defending South African conference champions, the Stormers, to come. If the Blues wanted a shot of winning a very competitive New Zealand conference, they would've had to start here.
They weren't perfect. They gave away a lot of penalties, but so did the Bulls, with 20 between the two teams. Nonu got better as the Blues got more possession in the second half, and Piri Weepu looked in shape. But the standout player was undoubtedly 20-year old pivot Gareth Anscombe.
He wasn't in the opening day 22 and only had a short stint off the bench against the Chiefs, missing his only attempt at goal. But against the Bulls, Lam gave him the starting nod, and it paid dividends.
The Rosmini College product hasn't received the same sort of hype as Aaron Cruden and Tyler Bleyendaal, the men who led the Baby Blacks backline before him, but since making his provincial debut as a 19-year-old in 2010, he has improved every year. Michael Hobbs' regression against the Chiefs opened the door for his first Super Rugby start.
And what a start it was.
In a 29-23 victory, Anscombe scored all of the Blues' points in Pretoria. The first was an intercept try in the second minute where he showed off the speed that made him successful in Auckland. The second was just a brilliant job of spotting a gap in the defense. He was also on target with his goal-kicking, with his only misses being from kicks that were past halfway.
Since the days of Carlos Spencer, the Blues have had loaded backlines but no one notable to lead them. In recent years they have relied on the poor-tackling Stephen Brett, the error-prone Tasesa Lavea, ineffective Jimmy Gopperth and natural fullback Isa Nacewa. They had Nick Evans for a year, but he was poorly utilized, playing fullback instead of his usual position.
After impressing for Auckland in his first two seasons, Anscombe has given Blues and Auckland fans hope that they might have a great pivot again. He didn't play for the Blues last year and was part of a lackluster Auckland team that failed to return to the playoffs. But his Blues debut, in a hostile environment, has reignited that hope.
Anscombe has a bright future ahead of him. He faces another challenge next week in the form of the Stormers. If he can continue playing like he did Sunday morning, the Blues may end up back in the hunt for a playoff position.
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