WELLINGTON: The Auckland Blues' hopes of a revival under new head coach Leon MacDonald are fast diminishing, with the New Zealand strugglers winless after two rounds of Super Rugby and facing a daunting trip to Argentina to take on the resurgent Jaguares.
The Blues have failed to reach the playoffs since 2011 but the three-times champions were optimistic about the year ahead after reshuffling their coaching set-up in the off-season.
Yet after winning praise in a brave 24-22 home defeat to champions Canterbury Crusaders, the Blues crashed to a 26-7 loss to the Sharks in Durban, reviving grim memories of their insipid four-win season under Tana Umaga last year.
The Durban defeat left the Blues equal bottom in the New Zealand Conference with the Waikato Chiefs and MacDonald said they only had themselves to blame.
"You can handle being beaten by a team that does exceptionally well, but when you play a big part in the loss through individual errors or structural errors it is hard to swallow," he added.
MacDonald was originally appointed as an assistant to Umaga last year but the Blues changed their minds after a post-season review and made him Umaga's boss while demoting the former All Blacks captain to defence coach.
While MacDonald was a highly respected assistant coach at the Canterbury Crusaders, he was given the top Blues job despite lacking any experience at the highest level in Super Rugby.
The shake-up was welcomed by frustrated fans but also appeared a reactive decision by a board that has long been pilloried for its handling of coaches, including Umaga's predecessors John Kirwan and Pat Lam.
MacDonald has already raised eyebrows with his selections.
After picking the returned Ma'a Nonu for the opener against the Crusaders, the former All Blacks midfielder was dropped for the tour of South Africa and Argentina.
"He's the type of player this club needs," MacDonald had said of Nonu upon his appointment in November.
"He'll provide a lot of value on and off the field and coupled with Sonny (Bill Williams) as well, we've got some really experienced and wise heads there."
Despite bringing the 33-year-old Williams back as starting inside centre, there was little intelligent play coming from the to the Blues' attack in Durban as they went to the halftime break 19-0 down.
They rallied in the second period, with replacement wing Tanielu Tele'a scoring their sole try and their backs belatedly testing the Sharks defence when passes finally went to hand.
They will grasp at those positives on the long-haul flight to Buenos Aires before meeting a Jaguares side buoyant after beating the Bulls 27-12.
"We've got to keep positive," said MacDonald. "We played pretty well last week and one bad performance doesn't make you a bad team."
"Hopefully we've got ours out of the way early and can get on a winning streak."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)