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'It's an issue': Blues worried about competing with Moana Pasifika for players

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Blues head coach Leon MacDonald says competing with Moana Pasifika for players has become “an issue” due to the depletion of New Zealand’s player pool.

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Alongside the 11 other franchise, the Blues announced their squad for next year’s inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific, a revamped version of the competition featuring two new franchises in Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua, late last month.

Upon confirmation of their roster, most pundits viewed the 2022 Blues squad as one of the strongest in the league, rivalling long-time Super Rugby powerhouses, the Crusaders, for talent, depth and quality.

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With nine players who featured for the All Blacks this year (including returning playmaker Beauden Barrett), the Blues also have  three further ex-All Blacks – Caleb Clarke, Alex Hodgman and new signing Luke Romano – in their ranks.

Add to that former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and a slew of promising youngsters, headlined by Anton Segner and Zarn Sullivan, and it’s easy to understand why the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman champions are seen as title frontrunners for next year.

However, despite the impressive strength throughout his team’s roster, MacDonald has maintained that the off-season recruitment drive has become more difficult following the induction of Moana Pasifika into Super Rugby Pacific.

Set to be based out of Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium for its first seven seasons in the competition, the new expansion franchise provides Super Rugby with its first cross-city rivalry in the league’s history.

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By sharing the same city as the Blues, Moana Pasifika has utilised similar resources as their neighbours, and the rest of the Kiwi teams, by plucking most of its playing squad out of New Zealand’s NPC competition.

That, in turn, has thinned the nation’s player pool for Super Rugby recruiters, which has become a source of concern for MacDonald given clubs from Europe, Japan and the United States also look to New Zealand to bolster their sides.

“It is an issue. I think it’s an issue. It’s definitely tougher,” he told reporters at the time of the 2022 Blues squad announcement last week.

“The depth of our players is just getting less and less and less. Moana’s obviously come in and, ultimately, there’s a lot of players from the New Zealand system that have ended up with them.

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“We’ve got an American league that’s started up and they’re pulling a lot of players in the NPC, and obviously we’ve got the traditional rivals with Japan and Europe, who have been taking players for a long time.”

According to MacDonald, the impact of having teams both from within New Zealand and abroad circling players from the same region has made it difficult for the Blues to sign players with experience to counterbalance the ever-present youth in his squad.

It’s for that reason, he said, that acquiring the likes of Romano, a World Cup-winning former All Blacks lock who helped the Crusaders win five titles between 2011 and 2021, is an invaluable addition to the franchise.

“Players like Luke Romano are like hen’s teeth,” MacDonald said of the 35-year-old, who played the last of his 32 tests for the All Blacks in 2017.

“The older 30-something-year-old guy that’s played heaps of rugby, that’s not around anymore, and you can’t have a team full of young bucks.

“There’s so much going on, it’s so cut-throat and you need experience, you need that balance of experience and youth, so to be able to secure Luke was a real bonus for us because they’re not there.

“It took some convincing because he is getting a little bit long in the tooth and he’s wondering whether his old body can keep going, but the depth is something that we’ve noticed that’s starting to become harder and harder for us to find the players that we need.”

That experience could prove to be extra useful heading into next season on the back of a provincial campaign that saw Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau withdrawn from the NPC after two rounds due to Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Players from those three teams haven’t played since August, and those who are signed to Super Rugby Pacific teams aren’t likely to until early February when pre-season fixtures get underway.

That six-month layoff will undoubtedly be detrimental to the development of youngsters and rookies, of whom the Blues have plenty.

One of those is Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, the 20-year-old wing who MacDonald was impressed by after he made his sole Super Rugby appearance in his debut campaign for the Blues earlier this year.

“It is what it is. We’ve just got to make sure we prepare them as best as we possibly can. We missed an opportunity to develop our players,” MacDonald said of the axing of Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau from this year’s NPC.

“You look at a young Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens who had a year with us, trained brilliantly. From the start of the year to the end, you could see his game growing and growing.

“He had one opportunity, played really well for us, and then he went back to Taranaki this year and played brilliantly.

“That was an ability for him to just keep stacking seasons on top of each other to develop his game, whereas a lot of our Auckland boys are exactly the same as him but left our Super season and hit a brick wall, really, and not being able to grow their game.”

MacDonald refused to complain about the circumstances he has been forced to deal with, though, as he said the extended break has given his match-deprived players a chance to train themselves into peak physical condition.

“There’s a massive opportunity missed by these guys. It’s not their fault, it’s just Covid, and we’ve got to make sure that, with our training, we replicate that as much as we can and still try and get those development opportunities for them.

“It can be a problem or an opportunity, and we think, ‘Okay, well if we can’t play rugby, what can we do and make the most of this time?’, and it’s about conditioning.

“The players have never had a conditioning window ever, probably, in their lives like we’ve got now, so we can potentially push some conditioning limits [more] than we’ve ever had before, and that can be an opportunity for us to turn it into a positive.

“You should be seeing some players in good nick by the start of the season.”

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