1st-round losers under pressure in Super Rugby

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Coach Tana Umaga.

Coach Tana Umaga. (Photo: Photosport)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Blues coach Tana Umaga spoke for all first-round losers in Super Rugby when he stressed "the tournament's not won in the first week."

The Auckland-based Blues were among a number of high-profile losers in the first full round last weekend. Others included 2016 champions the Wellington-based Hurricanes, who lost to the Pretoria-based Bulls, and the Queensland Reds, who began the tenure of new head coach Brad Thorn with a 45-19 loss to the Melbourne Rebels.

Umaga was quick to point out a single loss doesn't make a season. But pressure on first-round losers will snowball if they lose again in this weekend's round and Umaga may find it much harder to mollify Blues fans who have seen their team miss the playoffs in every season since 2009 and finish no better than ninth in that time.

Umaga, the former All Blacks captain, became head coach in 2016 and was seen as a man capable of transforming a team which had no success under his predecessors Pat Lam and John Kirwan.

But Umaga's first two seasons were not hugely productive: The Blues were the only New Zealand team to miss the playoffs in both years and haven't beaten another New Zealand team since the first round in 2016.

There was hope that after careful recruitment, Umaga's third season would be more fruitful. But the Blues lost 41-34 to the Dunedin-based Highlanders, sparking fears they are already heading down a familiar track.

On Friday, the Blues face the Hamilton-based Chiefs, their nearest neighbors who were also first-round losers, defeated 45-23 by the defending champions Crusaders.

The Blues played well at times in their opening match but the Highlanders scored two tries when the Blues were down to 14 men midway through the second half.

"They scored 14 points in that 10 minutes when we were a man down," Umaga said. "In that kind of game, when it's quite open, you're trying to close down as much space as you can with 15 (and) when you're down to 14 obviously it's even harder."

There were positive signs for the Blues. Bryn Gatland — son of Wales and British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland — looked good in his first match at flyhalf, a perpetually troublesome position for the Blues.

Teams that win the Super Rugby title have world-class flyhalves — Carlos Spencer, Stephen Larkham, Andrew Mehrtens, Morne Steyn, Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett among them — and the Blues haven't had one since Spencer.

The Reds also face an urgent need to improve this weekend after last weekend's loss to a Rebels side which posted it highest-ever score in Super Rugby. That loss was exacerbated by suspensions imposed on captain Scott Higginbotham and lock Lukhan Tupi, who have both been banned for three games for dangerous tackles.

The Reds face another derby clash this round, with the ACT Brumbies who were narrow winners over Japan's Sunwolves last weekend. Thorn, an uncompromising player who represented New Zealand in rugby union and Australia in rugby league, defended his team's discipline and hoped the judicial setbacks would not cause his players to become less physical.

"You want to bring that physicality but you've just got to be smart around how you do that," Thorne said.

The Hurricanes, who started the season among the title favorites, will try to get their season back on course against the Jaguares in Argentina after a 21-19 loss the Bulls which coach Chris Boyd called the worst performance of his tenure.

"In the period of time that I've been coaching I don't think I've ever been involved in a game where we've prepared so well and delivered so little," Boyd said.

Elsewhere in Round 3, the Crusaders play the Stormers at Christchurch, the Sunwolves play Melbourne in Singapore, the Sharks host New South Wales in Durban and the Bulls and Lions play in Pretoria. New Zealand's Highlanders have a weekend bye.

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