For a long time now, Aucklanders have had little to cheer about when it comes to Super Rugby. Courtesy of their significant population-base, the Blues really should be consistently performing to the highest level. Succesful seasons have been few and far between over the last 15 years, however.
2020 could mark the return of the Blues as a team to be feared – providing that the lessons learned from the stagnated seasons aren’t forgotten once next year arrives.
While the Blues have underperformed since their last title win in 2003, there have still been the odd seasons where the Aucklanders has risen to the top of the rankings. In 2007, the David Nucifora side managed a semi-final showing. Four years later, with Pat Lam at the helm, the Blues once again made it to the knockout stages of the competition.
Those are the exceptions, however – not the rule.
2020 was a great year for the side, particularly during Super Rugby Aotearoa, but great years have come and gone for the Blues and coach Leon MacDonald won’t be aiming for just one solid campaign, he’ll be aiming to re-build the Blues’ legacy.
From a personnel point of view, the Blues should have one of the most consistent rosters of any of New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams.
MacDonald mixed up his selections throughout the season, some times due to injury, which has helped strengthen the depth of Auckland-based team.
In the front row, James Parsons’ prolonged absence paved the way for Bay of Plenty’s Kurt Eklund to notch up a handful of matches. While Parsons is getting long in the teeth, the expectation is that the two hookers will both still be on the books next year and push each other for gametime.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Alex Hodgman both stepped up their games at prop this season while Karl Tu’inukuafe’s talent is well known. Throughout the rest of the forward pack, there’s ample experience and talent. A loose forward trio comprised of any of Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutua will challenge for the best in the competition while the recruitment of Canterbury lock Sam Darry is one of the Blues’ best pick ups in years.
It’s a similar story across the backline, with Joe Marchant and Matt Duffie the only confirmed permanent departures at this stage.
There is, however, the temporary loss of Beauden Barrett that needs to be accounted for.
While it took some time for the Blues to find their bearings this season, once Otere Black took over the reins at 10 and Stephen Perofeta shifted to fullback, the playmaking balance seemed to find a sweet spot.
Perofeta’s injury was timed well with Barrett joining the squad and the Blues went from strength to strength in Super Rugby Aotearoa, suffering just two losses.
Black, finally injury free, was able to stamp his mark on the campaign and the 25-year-old pivot was able to show off the talents that had earned him plenty of plaudits in his younger years.
The Blues did hit a bit of a wall halfway through the Aotearoa campaign, however, and Barrett’s move into first receiver seemed to reignite the somewhat stuttering side.
In 2021, Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan means that MacDonald won’t have that luxury to call upon. If Black cops another injury or the backline simply needs some refreshing, the Blues will have to turn to Perofeta or Harry Plummer (unless Dan Carter’s services can somehow be retained).
Still, there’s reason for cautious optimism in New Zealand’s north. Few would have expected the Blues to perform quite as well as they did this year. Knocking over the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes away from home would have seemed like a fairy tale in 2019 but MacDonald and his coaching group have seemingly helped the Blues turn a new corner.
Let’s hope that they don’t turn another next season.
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