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Blues youngster Zarn Sullivan opens up on rapid rise to Super Rugby stardom

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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When the Blues run out to face the Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday, it will be a family showdown for two youngsters on both teams.

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After being named to start at fullback for the Blues in their first game of the season after last week’s fixture against Moana Pasifika was postponed, Zarn Sullivan is set to come up against older brother Bailyn, who will start at centre for the Hurricanes.

It’s a match-up that Zarn – who, at 21-years-old, is two years younger than Bailyn – has encountered many a time in his brief first-class playing career.

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In fact, they went head-to-head in Zarn’s Blues debut against the Chiefs in the final round of last year’s Super Rugby Aoteaora, but that doesn’t make the prospect of doing battle against each other in Super Rugby Pacific tomorrow any less enticing.

“It’s always exciting for our family,” the younger Sullivan sibling exclusively told RugbyPass earlier this week.

“It’s nothing new now. This will probably be our fourth or fifth game against each other. I guess, just for both of us, we just look at each other and just think we’re just another player on the field when we’re opposite each other.”

Eyeing a second straight Super Rugby victory over his brother after getting the job done last year gives Sullivan extra motivation to continue the rich vein of form that made him one of the breakout stars of the 2021 season.

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Signed by Blues head coach Leon MacDonald last year, Sullivan went on to make seven successive starts following his debut against the Chiefs, culminating in his side’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final win over the Highlanders at Eden Park.

During that run of fixtures, Sullivan announced himself as the first-choice fullback for the Blues as he caught the attention of many through his strong kicking ability and game management skills that exuded a level of maturity far beyond his youth.

It’s for that reason that he has been has been retained in the No 15 jersey as part of an all-star backline that is headlined by All Blacks trio Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Finlay Christie, as well as notable debutant Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, this weekend.

“I think Zarn was really impressive at the end of last year and his form is building,” Blues assistant coach Tom Coventry told media on Thursday.

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“He’s got a wonderful nice big left foot which we use a lot. It makes sense for him to continue to develop in that spot. I don’t think the back coach would say we’re definitely set on it [the fullback spot], but he gets the first shot of the season.”

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Sullivan was modest in his assessment of his own abilities, noting to RugbyPass that his kicking “could be a bit better”, his execution “could be more consistent” and he should use his hefty 1.93m, 101kg frame to full effect more often with ball in hand.

However, he hinted that his qualities as a kicker in general play may have played a part in his selection against the Hurricanes.

“Without giving away too much, probably just picking off around their line speed,” Sullivan said when asked where his side can exploit the Hurricanes, indicating that he may look for space in behind their defensive line through his boot.

“We know when they get turned around, we can expose them when they’re not set in defence. That’s all I can give you.”

Those comments should act as a warning sign for the Hurricanes given how potent of a threat Sullivan’s kicking game was throughout Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year.

It was a key factor in his side’s title-winning success as they ended their 18-year wait for silverware, which Sullivan described as a “surreal” introduction to life in Super Rugby.

“To win it in my first year, new competition, new position for me – probably second year, actually – so it’s probably just being able to settle back in and do better than what I did last year.”

Formerly a first-five while at Napier Boys’ High School and King’s College, Sullivan has found a home for himself at fullback in a Blues backline where openings are hard to come by.

In addition to Ioane, Clarke, Christie and Tuivasa-Sheck, the Blues also boast the presence of All Blacks star Beauden Barrett, who will sit out this week’s match as he continues his return to action following his concussion against Ireland last November.

Barrett didn’t play a part in the Blues’ Trans-Tasman title as he enjoyed a season-long sabbatical in Japan with Suntory Sungoliath, meaning this year is the first chance Sullivan has to play alongside the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year.

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It’s also his first opportunity to play with Tuivasa-Sheck after Auckland’s four-month lockdown robbed him of the chance to do so during last year’s NPC, which Auckland had to withdraw from after only two rounds.

Sullivan conceded he was “frustrated” to have missed out on game time at provincial level after starring in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, but he is eager to now take to the field alongside Barrett and Tuivasa-Sheck.

“The first time I met Roger was at NPC. Unfortunately, that kind of went downhill with Covid, but, being outside Rog and Baz [Barrett] at training and stuff, it’s pretty cool, pretty surreal as well.”

Being teammates with stars of that quality has put Sullivan in good stead for further success down the line, as it did in the lead-up to his debut, a match of which he scored in to help steer the Blues to a 39-19 win over their local rivals.

“That Chiefs game, going back to my debut game, Caleb [Clarke] and Rieko [Ioane] gave me a lot of confidence in myself to play how I play and just trust that, whatever happens in that game, I would do well,” Sullivan told RugbyPass.

“The boys gave me confidence during the week, and, when I got out on the field, it all just came together, really.”

Since then, Sullivan has blossomed into one of the brightest prospects in New Zealand, and if he can continue his trajectory, an All Blacks call-up may not be out of the reckoning.

“Always a big goal of being an All Black, being a young fella and still coming up through the ranks, so All Blacks is always a big one,” he said.

“Under that, my three main goals are just to be a better person off and on the field, second one is just be better than last year, and the third one is just trying focus on me and just what I can do and support the team.”

Before then, though, Sullivan has his brother to account for when the Blues begin their Super Rugby Pacific campaign this weekend.

“We’ll have a little laugh, but we know once the opportunity comes, we’ll try and take each other’s heads off,” Zarn joked of squaring off against Bailyn. “Just the brotherly rivalry, eh.”

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