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Have the Blues uncovered the final piece of their backline puzzle?

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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The dawn of the 2021 NPC season brings with it plenty of anticipation for the diehards of New Zealand provincial rugby.

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It also looms as a hunting ground for Super Rugby franchises looking to bolster their squads for the upcoming season.

Most franchises have the bulk of their rosters locked in for the new-look 2022 campaign, although each team have voids they need filled and will likely look to the NPC to plug those gaps.

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Brodie Retallick on the danger areas for the All Blacks against Wallabies in Bledisloe I

The Blues are among those teams as the Auckland-based club have been hit with a number of player departures in the wake of their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title success.

Gone is chief pivot Otere Black, who took over the playmaking reins during Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical in Japan this season.

He is heading to the newly-named Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu, while captain Patrick Tuipulotu will also head to Japan as part of a fresh sabbatical deal.

Experienced flanker Blake Gibson, meanwhile, is heading south to join the Hurricanes in a swap deal that sees hooker Ricky Riccitelli move north.

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Riccitelli is, at this stage, one of three confirmed arrivals for the Blues ahead of the new season, with Barrett and former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the other newbies and returnees.

Having Barrett and Tuivasa-Sheck in the Blues’ ranks for the next two seasons is significant for the franchise as they aim to extend their newfound success beyond Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Together, the pair will help the Blues form arguably the most stacked and exciting backline in Super Rugby that perhaps only the Crusaders will be able to match in star power.

With Barrett likely to resume his duties in the No 10 jersey, he should partner All Blacks rookie Finlay Christie in the halves, while Rieko Ioane is the frontrunner to retain the No 13 jersey he has dominated since last year.

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Caleb Clarke will also return from the All Blacks Sevens camp to slot back onto the left wing, and young prodigy Zarn Sullivan showed enough class from fullback in his debut Super Rugby campaign to keep his role in the No 15 jersey.

That leaves two backline positions – second-five and right wing – up for grabs, and Tuivasa-Sheck has been pinpointed as a likely candidate to fill both those spots.

It’s unknown whether the 2018 Dally M Medallist will be a midfielder, wing or fullback in rugby union, but given his experience as a wing and fullback in league, it seems his primary position in the XV-man game is destined to be in the outside backs.

As former All Blacks and NRL star Sonny Bill Williams said last week, wing looks the most appropriate position for Tuivasa-Sheck, at least in the early stages of his cross-code switch.

For that reason, it is more fathomable to suggest we will see Tuivasa-Sheck in the No 14 jersey, not only for the Blues next season, but also for Auckland this season – potentially as early as this weekend.

That leaves just the No 12 jersey vacant, and with TJ Faiane set to depart the Blues to join the likes of Black and Tuipulotu in Japan next year, it is anyone’s guess as to who will act as his replacement.

Of those currently signed on for 2022, only playmaker Harry Plummer stands as a viable candidate with experience at second-five to stand-in for Faiane.

But, what if the Blues have been presented with a wildcard, yet potentially quality, prospect to replace Faiane right in their own backyard on the eve of the 2021 NPC season?

Tuivasa-Sheck, of course, is not the only new dual-code signing Auckland have pulled off this season, as former Warriors and Melbourne Storm wing Solomone Kata will don the blue-and-white hoops over the course of the coming weeks.

Unlike Tuivasa-Sheck, though, Kata has 18 months of professional experience in union, having played for the Brumbies over the past two Super Rugby seasons.

During his time in Canberra, the ex-New Zealand and Tonga league international, a former teammate of Tuivasa-Sheck’s at the Warriors and Kiwis, has made his name on the wing.

A powerful athlete, Kata began his career in union with a hiss and a roar, scoring five tries in his first six outings for the Brumbies before Covid-19 brought a halt to the competition last March.

Since then, opportunities have been comparatively far and few between for the 26-year-old, who has failed to cross the line since then after largely being demoted to bench roles throughout both Super Rugby AU campaigns.

Kata was afforded more starts in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, where his blockbusting ability was on full show from the right wing.

Among the league-leaders for defenders beaten, it was a common sight to see Kata bounce through would-be tacklers as the Brumbies finished the competition as one of only two Australian teams to register victories over New Zealand opponents.

Kata’s exploits in rugby league were similar as he used his supreme physical traits to cross for 46 tries in 93 NRL matches as a centre between 2015 and 2019.

The Brumbies must have believed his try-scoring prowess in league would have yielded similar results in union by putting him on the wing, but it’s difficult not to think that his attributes would be better utilised in the midfield.

More specifically, Kata seems to fit the mould of barnstorming ball-carrier from second-five, whose talents are akin to that of former All Blacks and Hurricanes midfielder Ngani Laumape.

Coincidentally, Laumape was a Warriors teammate of Kata’s in 2015, and both offer a similar skill-set, of which made Laumape an incredibly damaging player in the No 12 jersey throughout his time in New Zealand rugby.

Ultimately, the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby deemed Laumape surplus to requirements in favour of other midfielders with broader skill-sets, but the Hurricanes flourished in Super Rugby as a result of his ability to plough through the defensive line.

In a competition where attacking rugby thrives, it must be said that Kata possesses similar potential to that of Laumape in Super Rugby.

That potential is likely to be better realised if Kata is playing in a position that is more suited to him for a team that is in the midst of their most successful period in almost two decades.

With depth and quality across the board, it’s probable the Blues’ success will extend beyond this year, but the acquisition of a powerful second-five to replace Faiane could go some way to ensuring that.

Given Kata is now on the books of Auckland, the Blues have a ready-made replacement hanging in the wings right in the heart of their catchment region.

Granted, Kata’s deal with the Brumbies doesn’t expire until the end of next year, but early contract releases aren’t uncommon in Super Rugby.

Just this season, Highlanders flyer Solomon Alaiamalo and Chiefs speedster Chase Tiatia moved franchises with a year left to run in their previous deals with the Chiefs and Hurricanes, respectively.

Critics may also point to Kata’s defensive deficiencies, which plagued his NRL stint, or his lack of finesse required of a midfielder, but time in the saddle with Auckland would help iron those issues out.

It’s not as if he’s being given much of a chance to alleviate those concerns at the Brumbies following the breakout of the pandemic, so an extended period in the Auckland starting lineup could see him develop into a more well-rounded player.

If he stands out in the NPC, the recruitment of Kata must surely come into consideration for the Blues as they look for the final piece to complete their tantalising backline puzzle.

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Have the Blues uncovered the final piece of their backline puzzle?

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