After a rejuvenation of sorts in 2020, the Blues will have to reinvent themselves again in the coming Super Rugby Aotearoa season, having lost star recruit Beauden Barrett to Japan for the year.
Since the 2003 title win, the Blues have managed just one finals appearance, despite boasting the largest catchment area in New Zealand. Much of their lack of success has been rightly or wrongly attributed to the side not possessing a world-class flyhalf and Barrett’s injection into the side late in 2020 coincided with a rich vein of form for the Aucklanders, with the Blues eventually finishing the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition in second place.
Of course, the Blues up-turn in fortunes actually began before Barrett joined the team, with Bay of Plenty pivot Otere Black running the cutter in the No 10 jersey. Barrett was utilised primarily at fullback for his new side, but his Japan sabbatical means coach Leon MacDonald will need to make some changes to the Blues backline regardless.
Before the 2020 season was interrupted due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Taranaki utility back Stephen Perofeta was utilised at No 15. Perofeta was invalided following the break, however, due to a broken leg – paving the way for Barrett’s inclusion.
Following a successful return during the Mitre 10 Cup, MacDonald could reinstate Perofeta at the back of the park – but the former Crusaders and All Blacks fullback has hinted that one of the Blues’ new recruits could be called upon to fill the void left by Barrett.
Speaking on Sky Sports’ The Conversation podcast, MacDonald explained why the Blues primarily utilised Barrett at fullback instead of in his preferred No 10 role.
“I think it worked because of a couple of things,” MacDonald said. “Beaudy was new to the team, Oats was the form player, Beaudy’s been playing a lot of fullback, Beaudy wasn’t goal-kicking at the time because … he was playing around with his kicking technique and it just took a bit of pressure off him.
“Because there was a lot of expectations and pressure on Beaudy anyway. So to step up into a new team, drive the game, [have the] pressure of the goal kicking on his shoulders, settling into a new city. It was a nice fit and the plan was always to move him forward in the second half of the season, which we ended up doing.”
That doesn’t mean the Blues will take a similar approach in 2020, however – opting for effectively a second pivot at the back.
“Whether we do that again depends on the circumstances. Obviously, it’s got to fit the team and the players. We’re lucky enough to have a really good pre-season period to see. We’ve got some young players that we’ve signed coming through, who’ve got a lot of potential. I’m pretty excited about some of our younger talent coming through – at fullback in particular.
“There’s going to be a good jostle for our 10 jersey as well with Oats being the incumbent and Harry Plummer driving Auckland really well this year. Stephen Perofeta, I thought, had a tough year with Taranaki but his personal form was outstanding. Yeah, it’ll depend on who puts their hand up in pre-season but we do have that option, definitely.”
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The Blues have made four key recruitments in the outside backs for the upcoming season, bringing in Jone Macilai-Tori, AJ Lam, 2019 New Zealand Schools representative Jacob Ratumaitavuk-Kneepkens and 2020 New Zealand U20 trialist Zarn Sullivan.
Sullivan spent most of last year’s provincial season camped at fullback for Auckland and impressed throughout the competition for the beaten finalists, despite being just 20-year-old.
While MacDonald didn’t rule out using Perofeta or Bay of Plenty’s Emoni Narawa at fullback, he also made it clear that the position was yet to be settled on – which presents Sullivan with a huge opportunity during the upcoming pre-season.
Later in the podcast, MacDonald identified Sullivan as the Blues’ young player to watch for the year ahead and joked that he’d locked the young fullback in on a 10-year contract.
The World Rugby Under 20s Championship was called off in 2020 due to the global pandemic but Sullivan trained with the wider squad and would have likely been a shoe-in for selection, had the tournament gone ahead.
Despite focussing on fullback for Auckland, Sullivan played at first-five for King’s College during their run to the Auckland 1A final. The prodigiously talented utility back was named in the outside backs in the Blues’ official squad announcement for 2021 but could just as easily pop up at first receiver.
The Blues’ season kicks off on February 27 against the Hurricanes in Wellington.
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