Crusaders star reveals the biggest threat to their 2022 title hopes
Since taking over as the team’s head coach in 2017, Scott Robertson masterminded a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles in his first three years in charge, and followed that up with back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa crowns in 2020 and 2021.
He will, no doubt, be targeting a sixth piece of silverware when Super Rugby Pacific – the revamped version of the competition comprised of the 10 New Zealand and Australian teams as well as Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua – kicks-off in February.
In the minds of most observers, it is difficult to bet against the Crusaders from doing so given the breadth of quality and talent throughout their roster, leaving them as frontrunners to claim an unprecedented 13th championship.
However, according to Hall, the Blues present the biggest threat to their title aspirations as Auckland-based side head into the new season on the back of a breakthrough season where they won their first major accolade in 18 years.
Long heralded as Super Rugby’s perennial underachievers, the Blues got the proverbial monkey off their back by clinching the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title in June, beating the Highlanders in front of a large crowd at Eden Park.
In doing so, they stopped Robertson and the Crusaders from completing a Super Rugby clean sweep this year in what was – aside from their 2018 Brisbane 10s success – their first competition win since the glory days of 2003.
Most of the squad that won Super Rugby Trans-Tasman has returned to the Blues set-up under head coach Leon MacDonald, including All Blacks Rieko and Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Finlay Christie, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe.
All eight of those players were involved with the All Blacks this year, as was mercurial first-five Beauden Barrett, who returns from Japan after a six-month sabbatical with Suntory Sungoliath in the Top League.
Last year’s standout player Caleb Clarke is also back after being lost to the All Blacks Sevens’ Olympic campaign during the Trans-Tasman leg of Super Rugby, while the Blues have landed former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on a two-year deal.
Other All Blacks, including prop Alex Hodgman and new lock Luke Romano, are also present in next year’s squad, which has led Hall, who played for the Blues between 2013 and 2016, to highlight them as serious contenders to win Super Rugby Pacific in 2022.
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“I think all the teams are always competitive in New Zealand Super Rugby, but I do like a couple of signings the Blues have had,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod as he pointed to the acquisition of Tuivasa-Sheck as being key for the franchise.
“We’re going to see Roger Tuivasa-Sheck come into next year, who was a great coup for the Blues, and it was unfortunate that he didn’t get to play for the Auckland team in the NPC, to be able to see him and iron out a few things and get back to playing rugby.”
Hall added that the signing of Romano, the World Cup-winning ex-All Black who he had played alongside at the Crusaders since 2017, is also significant given the Blues will be without captain Patrick Tuipulotu, who has left for a sabbatical at Toyota Verblitz.
“I think the signing of Luke Romano is a great signing by Leon MacDonald,” Hall said.
“The amount of knowledge that he brings on the field, but probably more so off the field and what he can bring for the locking companions at the Blues, is going to be massive for them.
“The facts are that they’ve lost [Gerard Cowley-Tuioti], who was massive for them last year and we thought possibly could be in that All Black frame, and Patty Tuipulotu won’t be playing as well, so any time you can add experience of a guy like Luke Romano into that environment, to be playing or to be mentoring those young guys coming through, it’s going to be really good.”
The 29-year-old Maori All Blacks representative also praised the Blues for snatching highly-touted flanker Anton Segner from under the noses of the Crusaders.
A New Zealand U20 representative this year, Segner, who was born and raised in Germany, has impressed onlookers with his superb form and rapid development while playing for Tasman in the NPC over the last two seasons.
The 20-year-old’s vast potential was initially recognised by the Crusaders as they signed him up to their academy and had him involved in pre-season training and matches at the beginning of this year.
That wasn’t enough to keep him in Christchurch, though, as the Blues pounced to hand him his first full-time Super Rugby contract.
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While Segner isn’t expected to feature in the starting loose forward trio too often – the Blues are blessed in that department with Papalii, Sotutu, Akira Ioane and Tom Robinson all in the squad – Hall said it was still a fantastic signing for the Aucklanders.
“They’ve got Anton Segner, who I think’s a really young, talented kid coming through the system who has gotten away from us and has seen the light at the Blues, but he’s a young that is coming through,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“There’s a lot of flankers or loose forwards coming through in that set-up, but, a guy for the future, he’s definitely one to look out for.”
With a mix of headline names, youthful prospects and experienced campaigners competing for places in MacDonald’s first-choice lineup, Hall believes the Blues have a well-balanced squad capable of adding to the newfound succes they enjoyed this year.
“I’d say the Blues are probably sitting real pretty,” he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“For me, they’d probably be one team that I’d see thinking that they’ll go pretty close to winning the championship next year with their recruitment and the fact that they won Super Rugby [Trans-Tasman] last year.”
“You’ve got to give credit to them. They’ve got a great group, and it hasn’t just been from last year. It’s been building.
“They’ve got a really good squad and they’re getting guys like Luke Romano, even Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who’s obviously come from league, and Beauden Barrett, who’s back as well and playing pretty good footy, so all is sitting pretty for the Blues coming into 2022.”
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