WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The Auckland Blues’ creation of unwanted history as the first New Zealand side to lose to the Jaguares in Super Rugby has plunged the team into a fresh crisis.
With playoffs hopes on a knife edge before May, the Blues were humbled 20-13 by the Argentine side at Eden Park on Saturday, their fifth loss in six games.
Having finished ninth last year, hopes had been high for Tana Umaga’s side to make a run at the postseason.
But they have won just two of their nine matches this campaign and again sit bottom of the New Zealand conference on 13 points.
“We know we are underperforming as a whole so that is a challenge and we live for the challenge,” Umaga told reporters.
“We are not getting it right on the field at the moment but we are not far away.”
The small crowd that braved torrential rain on Saturday saw the Blues take a 13-5 lead at half-time playing into a strong wind before tactically falling apart in the second spell.
They failed to kick deep into Jaguares territory and were kept pinned inside their own half.
Umaga has steadfastly refused to criticise his players but came close on Saturday.
“It’s a pretty simple game with the wind, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s up to everyone to understand the plan.
“There are key people that need to make those decisions, and I don’t believe they did.”
The Blues won the last of their three titles in 2003 and have been back to the playoffs just twice since.
Their struggles in the current term have turned off fans and television viewers, and prompted an apology from acting captain James Parsons on Saturday.
The poor form has not been helped by a horrendous injury toll and with 19 players unavailable this week, Umaga had to look outside his wider training group.
Conference rivals Waikato Chiefs, however, have kept winning amid a similar injury crisis and, unlike the Blues, have beaten other New Zealand sides.
The Blues haven’t defeated compatriots since Umaga’s first game in charge, the 2016 season-opener against the Otago Highlanders.
They can still sneak into the playoffs as the eighth-best team if they can start winning again.
But it would be a long road back.
The Chiefs, the side directly above them in fourth place in New Zealand, are on 26 points and have played one fewer game.
Umaga’s bosses have stood by the former All Blacks captain, even as patience wears thin.
“There is plenty of support for Tana within New Zealand Rugby and the Blues,” Blues chief executive Michael Redman said last week.
“We haven’t been able to deliver and changing coaches every cycle hasn’t worked for the Blues previously ... our preferred option would be to try to work with the group we have.”
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Ian Ransom