The Blues’ season has come to a fairly placid end, all things considered.
The season kicked off with a two-point loss to the Crusaders in Auckland. A victory against the red-and-blacks would have been the Blue’s first in six years and could well have spring-boarded the season. Instead, the Blues tumbled to three straight losses.
A run of four home games in a row saw the Blues string together four successive wins to re-ignite their season. Looking back, however, only one of those successes was against a team that finished in the top eight of the competition – and that was the Highlanders, who have only managed six wins in total this year.
A loss on the road to the Chiefs saw the Blues return to form and the only further victory they tasted in 2019 was the return fixture against the Chiefs in Auckland – which marked their first win against the Waikato-based team since 2011.
Ultimately, the Blues once again failed to flatter this year, recording just five wins and a draw from their 16 matches.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Blues fans, however, will be that there doesn’t really appear to be an end in sight for the Auckland side’s blunder years.
New season, same old story
With Tana Umaga as head coach in 2017, the Blues managed a 9th place finish. They were actually the 8th best team on show – but the Brumbies qualified ahead of them for the finals on account of Super Rugby’s lop-sided finals structure.
Last year, the Blues dropped to second to last place. It was to be Umaga’s final year in the head role, with Leon MacDonald taking over as top dog in 2019 and Umaga stepping into an assistant position.
Only last week, MacDonald was confident that his side had made great strides this season.
“l do think we’ve had discernible growth,” MacDonald said.
“You’ve only got to look at results: we’ve pushed every team; we’ve been in every single game.”
Whilst that may well be true, the argument could be made that the competition has been of a considerably lower standard this year. The New Zealand sides, in particular, have rarely played to their potential – possibly as a result of having to regularly rest their All Blacks.
In the Blues’ final performance of the season, they somehow found a way to blow a 19-point halftime lead against the Hurricanes. Perhaps MacDonald will chalk the 29-24 loss up as another close result that could have gone their way – but it was also a game played against a Hurricanes side resting most of their stars, knowing they’d already booked a fourth-place finish.
In recent seasons, the Blues have usually been competitive in every match they’ve played – but they still keep losing. The fact that the Blues kept games tight this year incorrectly assumes that they were only a point or two away from winning games. In most cases, however, the final score-line flattered the Auckland franchise.
First five well stocked for the future
The latest news, of course, is that the Blues are once again trying to court All Black Beauden Barrett. Whilst Barrett would be an excellent addition to any side, the Blues’ major issue in 2019 has not been their first fives.
Harry Plummer and Otere Black have actually performed reasonably well in 2019 – a few goal-kicking yips aside. They’re young, inexperienced players who will look ten times better next year after each getting another full campaign of Mitre 10 Cup under their belts. Plummer only made his provincial debut last year while Black managed just six professional appearances in 2018 due to an ACL injury. Factor in the return of Stephen Perofeta and the Blues are well stocked at 10.
The franchise has a history of discarding young first fives when they fail to perform in their first couple of years as professionals and trying to bring Barrett north simply signals to these young athletes that their future with the side is in question. They’re locked in with the Blues for 2020, but every other Super Rugby side would be quite happy to add them to their books if the opportunity arose.
The bigger area of concern for the Blues is at halfback.
Poor service failing a backline of stars
The first five is often considered to be the playmaker of a side, but any former 10 will tell you that their play is hugely dictated by the kind of service they’re receiving from the halfback. The halfback, of course, is equally as dependant on the forwards.
While there may be some question marks over the fitness and commitment of some of the Blues’ tight five at times, the loose forwards are as mighty as any in the competition. Between Blake Gibson, Dalton Papali’i, Tom Robinson and Akira Ioane, the Blues can field a formidable unit every week that will compete to give the Blues decent front-foot ball – especially with Ioane seemingly focusing more on the tighter work this year.
The quality of ball then stutters when it reaches the halfback. Sam Nock, Jonathan Ruru and Augustine Pulu all started matches at 9 this year, but it’s anyone’s guess who the coaches see as their top scrumhalf.
Nock looked the most adept at the core skills of passing and box-kicking but his season was cut short after injuring his hand in early May. Ruru was promoted to the starting role in Nock’s absence but gave little indication to the masses what made him a Super Rugby level halfback.
Pulu was lured north from the Chiefs in 2017 after competing for game-time with Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Brad Weber but appears to have completely regressed as a halfback. His passing is woefully inadequate, given his experience, and he seems far too intent on trying to run the ball when there are better options on offer.
It was Pulu’s baffling decision to independently try make ground down the five-metre channel which conceded possession to the Crusaders in the first round of the competition and ultimately sealed his team’s fault. This is the kind of error that is barely tolerable for a Super Rugby rookie, let alone a former All Black and the team’s former captain who has almost 90 Super Rugby caps to his name.
Few short-term solutions on offer
Let it not be forgotten that the Blues once had Bryn Hall on their books but somehow managed to lose him to the Crusaders. Hall is the exact kind of player that Blues are calling out for right now – but he’s just signed a contract extension which will see him remain with the Crusaders until the end of 2021.
With Pulu heading overseas and questions lingering over the abilities of Nock and Ruru, Leon MacDonald should be scouring the country for a halfback that could provide ample support to his young five-eighths.
Unfortunately, there are few experienced (or even just promising) options who are off-contract in 2020. All Blacks Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Mitchell Drummond would probably both like to garner more game-time for the Chiefs and the Crusaders respectively, but the Blues would likely have to wait until 2021 to pounce.
There really are few options on the table for the Blues – which goes to show how important it is to nurture and retain young talent. Next year the franchise will lose Melani Nanai, Pulu and lock Scott Scrafton, but otherwise the side will have few gaps to fill that didn’t already exist in 2019.
MacDonald is confident that we’ll start to see more significant improvements next year. Until the Blues can find a halfback that can order the forwards around and control the pace of the game, however, it’s hard to envisage a season where Super Rugby’s first-ever champion franchise don’t once again prop up the New Zealand conference.
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