It's hard to go past Akira Ioane when wondering where it all went wrong for the Blues in 2021
Their’s was – by a distance – the most talented squad in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Or at least many of us thought so.
Such was the desperation to see a credible title-winning alternative to the Crusaders emerge, that maybe we all kidded ourselves a bit.
Take Ioane. It was only a month or two back that most media outlets in the country proclaimed the man had turned “the corner.’’
Ioane talked about learning a few lessons and rediscovering his love for the game and a lot of us went down the lazy route of declaring him the finished article. No longer would we write about Akira Ioane flattering to deceive; he was now the dominant force so many had hoped he might become.
Nowadays, of course, he can’t crack the Blues’ best 15 and many predict he won’t retain his All Blacks’ starting berth either.
To go back to the top, maybe we all over-rated a few of these Blues? Not that their disappointing Super campaign is our fault. So who should we blame for a season of significant under-achievement?
There’s a few obvious flaws.
For starters, you won’t win a lot with Jonathan Ruru, Harry Plummer, Stephen Perofeta and Otere Black as your primary playmakers or game-drivers. That’s not their fault; they didn’t pick themselves in this squad.
But the people who did name them, either see more in them than there really is or haven’t done a good enough job of coaching them.
Remember all the waffle about Black a year ago? About how much he was learning off Beauden Barrett and Daniel Carter and about how – he too – was becoming the finished article?
Well, like Ioane, Black can’t crack the Blues’ best team at the moment.
A couple of other things stand out about this team too.
The posturing is one. The Blues carry themselves with the swagger of champions, when the reality is anything but.
Talent doesn’t buy you respect – being respectable does – and there’s the odd player who should be mindful of that.
Then there’s discipline. Not necessarily in terms of foul play, more adhering to a gameplan and executing the basics.
Too often this team freelances when faced with a challenge. Guys go searching for the big play, when it’s actually a bit of resilience that’s required.
It was curious to see head coach Leon MacDonald blame the early departure Tanielu Tele’a for the lack of cohesion on Sunday. Tele’a is a useful player, but you’d hardly describe him – as MacDonald almost attempted to – as the fulcrum for the Blues’ gameplan.
Things went out the window on Sunday – as they have done on a semi-regular basis of late – because blokes didn’t have the discipline to stick with the programme.
New Zealand Rugby (NZR) deserve congratulations for what they’ve done with the Blues. The franchise was once an embarrassment to the sport and now it’s not, so well done.
In becoming a private equity investor and parachuting their own people onto the Blues’ board, NZR showed a bit of courage and leadership. Good players are now prepared to sign with the Blues and – as we’ve all noted – their squad is now the envy of most teams.
Only that’s still not enough.
Is MacDonald the right man at the helm? Will he persist with Barrett at fullback next year? Can anyone solve the riddle of the Ioane brothers? Should NZR facilitate the transfer of more good players to the franchise?
This season promised so much for the Blues, generating expectations that few at the franchise have lived up to. Talent is one thing, but culture and cohesion are quite another.
On the basis of what we’ve seen in 2021, the Blues remain a long way off becoming the team so many of us thought they could be.
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