The Blues are optimistic.
It is December, after all, and not a shot has been fired in Super Rugby. We say this every year with New Zealand’s most underperforming franchise.
But there is an air of confidence that they will gradually build on the inexorable progress made in 2019 when they proved far harder to beat, despite their final unimposing 5-1-10 record, and should have won 5-6 more games than they did.
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They had an open training session at their Auckland base today, turned back the clock with some 5-a-side games involving old legends such as Doug Howlett and Daniel Braid, announced plans for a pitchside bar at their competition opener at Eden Park, and went old school with the choice of Onewa Domain as the venue for their January 24 pre-season clash with the Hurricanes.
Oh yes, and coach Leon MacDonald is looking at a mid-April return to action for their star signing Beauden Barrett, who is on extended sabbatical. The All Blacks fullback cum first five has been jet-setting around the globe, playing golf, and buying a new property in the city of sails. He has also fitted in the odd gym session at Blues HQ, as has fellow All Black Ofa Tuungafasi. Barrett will, however, likely ease back into footy with his Taranaki club Coastal.
While the Hurricanes and the Crusaders have had distractions around the make-up of their coaching staff as the All Blacks coaching saga played out, the Blues have been able to move serenely on with their work. That suits second-year head coach MacDonald.
“We’ve been really impressed with the state everyone turned up after a month off. That set them up, so we’ve had a really good (three-week) pre-season and we’ve come together well,” he says.
“We’ve been talking about that since day one. We need to be game-fit by the end of January. The days of thinking about contact after New Year’s are long gone,” MacDonald says.
There is a decent look to the roster. Rieko Ioane, who suddenly has plenty to prove, will be given a crack at centre. He turned up walking his dog today. Like the other All Blacks, other than Barrett, he is due back to full training in January.
And yet while the Blues will need to get through the first 10 weeks or so with their halves before Barrett slots in, there is a useful, yet unheralded, aspect to their recruitment.
They have signed several older, more seasoned pros who will do the job on the field and help lift standards off it. That in itself will not guarantee a run to the playoffs, but it will galvanise the group and add to the intra-squad competition. So step forward loose forward Tony Lamborn, once of the Hurricanes via the USA Eagles, hooker Kurt Eklund, who played for the Blues in their winning 2018 10s side, bruising former Highlanders hooker Ray Niuia and Northland wing Jordan Hyland, who is back in the fold.
No captain has yet been announced but it would surprise if it wasn’t All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who was co-skipper in 2019.
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