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Leon MacDonald hints that talented 20-year-old could take Beauden Barrett's spot at the Blues

Zarn Sullivan. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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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Wonton 6 hours ago
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One game against Fiji is not enough to show that a player is ready to play the likes of South Africa. Spreading the ball wide too much increases the risk of turnovers and we turned the ball over 20 times against Fiji which is a lot more than what we did in the two England tests. We actually turned the ball over the same amount of times (20) against England in the 2019 semi final which we lost. Fiji didn’t make us pay for those turnovers but other teams will. In the 2nd test against England this year we had 100% success rate on attacking rucks. That’s the first time the AB’s have achieved this since the 2019 opening game of the RWC against South Africa. South Africa won last years RWC and Jesse Kriel did not pass once. The days of the Conrad Smith type centre might be over. Also Conrad Smith debuted in 2004 but he did not become an incumbent until Nonu did also in 2008. As for Rieko Ioane he and Jordie Barrett put in some very strong midfield hits in the 2nd test forcing turnovers several times. Rieko Ioane hasn’t played wing in years. If Proctor is moved to 13 then the best I think Ioane can hope for is an impact player off the bench. He does not have the aerial game of Caleb Clarke or the workrate of Tele’a for 11 and going to be selected over Jordan at 14. However its much too early to replace Rieko with Proctor. Rieko was excellent in the knock out rounds of the RWC. All Proctor has to show on his test CV is a good game against Fiji.

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Nick 8 hours ago
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Its almost like you read my comment on the other site on sunday morning Nick - you flagged all the same examples! 😝 Frost was motm for mine. That eg in the 56th minute in particular impressed me, nothing but sheer effort and a dupont/smith-like tracking line behind the D. Surely an effort like that from frost marries perfectly with that quote from schmidt at the start of the year about effort and work rate being 70-80% and talent is just the icing on top… What it also showed though was the players not making that effort, in that example he goes past both valetini and ikitau, and in the eg that finished with valetini scoring hunter paisami barely breaks a canter to support the break. And then there was the chase from wright and lancaster for the 2nd georgian try! One blemish - at kickoff I saw frost miss or get bumped off a few tackles and I felt like I saw what has been holding his selection back. I think because he is so big and is trying to get low to tackle, he seems to dip his head and ends up losing his balance or ability to adjust and ends up missing or making a soft hit. I think in the first 2 minutes he misses or makes 2-3 soft tackles, but you could clearly see the work rate and desire! He (the pod) also missed a kick restart or two? Also very happy to see harry wilson back in the fold. What impressed me from him wasn’t all the usual stuff he is known for, but all the other bits that usually let him down. He looked surprisingly good in the air at lineout time, physical at the breakdown, and good in the maul peeling off 3 georgians for one of the maul tries. Id have frost, skelton, wright as my 4-6 with LSL and wilson on the bench. i’m once again unconvinced by tom wirght - he was very good game 1, but game 2-3 he was back to more rocks than diamonds. There is no real other player to usurp him really so he stays in the team for now but I think Joe should put kellaway wherever he serves the team best and wright can be moved around him. Did donno do enough to overtake noah? My gut says no. They clearly had a plan to attack more so he looked better in that regard because he just had more opportunity, but they looked better off tate (who had a v good game also) then they did off donno.

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