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Leon MacDonald tipped to become 'the future of the All Blacks' with Scott Robertson

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Blues head coach Leon MacDonald has been labelled as “the future of the All Blacks coaching staff” by an All Blacks great.

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Speaking on The Breakdown, former All Blacks wing and ex-Blues boss Sir John Kirwan said MacDonald must be viewed as an All Blacks coaching candidate after guiding his former side to a 27-23 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.

The win was the Blues’ first in Christchurch since 2004, ending an 18-year drought in the Garden City to elevate the Auckland-based franchise to the summit of the Super Rugby Pacific table.

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The Blues will remain in first place heading into their upcoming six-week block of matches against Australian opposition and the Fijian Drua, a stretch of matches in which they are expected to go undefeated.

Do that, and MacDonald’s side will be guaranteed home matches throughout the course of the playoffs, giving them the best possible chance of backing up last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman success with consecutive titles.

Such a prospect is a far cry from where they were three years ago, when MacDonald took over from Tana Umaga as Blues head coach in the midst of a title-less spell that had lasted since 2003.

Now in his fourth season in charge of the Blues, MacDonald has overhauled the franchise from perennial underachievers to legitimate title contenders, and perhaps even championship favourites.

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It’s for that reason that Kirwan told The Breakdown that MacDonald should be considered a future All Blacks coach alongside Crusaders boss Scott Robertson after achieving what many of his Blues predecessors – Kirwan included – failed to accomplish.

“I said I’ve got a bit of a bromance with the man because he’s done what a lot of us couldn’t do,” Kirwan said, alluding to his unsuccessful three-year stint at the helm of the Blues between 2013 and 2015.

“You have to start talking about him with Razor [Robertson] as the future of the All Blacks coaching staff. He has done pretty much, like I said, what a lot of us haven’t been able to do. He’s created a really strong team.”

Kirwan pointed to MacDonald’s investment of youth and clever recruitment scheme during his reign as Blues head coach as a key factor in the success he is enjoying this season.

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Under MacDonald’s stewardship, the Blues have developed numerous youngsters into game-breaking stars, with captain Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke going on to become All Blacks and vital squad members.

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Journeyman prop Alex Hodgman is another to have become an All Black during MacDonald’s reign, while occasional captain Tom Robinson and All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe both made their Blues debuts in MacDonald’s first year in charge.

Likewise, long-serving Blues players like Akira Ioane, Stephen Perofeta, Sam Nock and Josh Goodhue have all been at their best under the guidance of MacDonald, who has also been responsible for the acquisition of various key players in recent years.

Those acquisitions include All Blacks stars, cross-code converts and experienced heads such as Beauden Barrett, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Finlay Christie, Nepo Laulala, Luke Romano, Mark Telea, Kurt Eklund, Bryce Heem and Ricky Riccitelli.

Combined with a youthful core of talent that includes Taine Plumtree, Zarn Sullivan, Anton Segner, Sam Darry, Corey Evans and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, and MacDonald has created an enviable depth of quality across his roster.

As such, former Highlanders and Crusaders lock Joe Wheeler told The Breakdown that the Blues stand as legitimate title contenders, which he said is largely attributable to the work done by MacDonald in years gone by.

“You’ve got to give Leon some credit for that,” Wheeler said of the depth of quality and talent in the current Blues squad.

“The foresight to invest in those young guys, yeah, it took some hurt for a few years to get them to this point, but now they’re starting to recognise the benefits of investing in some young talent a few years ago, developing them, giving a guy like Dalton some leadership and we’ve seen the growth in his game through the ability to lead this team.

“His game has gone to a whole other level, and you can’t understate the influence of Leon on that young group and I suppose the responsibility they’re taking and the care that they have for this sort of stuff.”

Wheeler added that MacDonald has been crucial in changing the mindset of his players to get the best out of them, drawing examples from last weekend’s win over the Crusaders to accentuate his point.

Those examples included the scrambling defence seen in preventing a Crusaders attack that was spearheaded by Leicester Fainga’anuku, as well as Rieko Ioane’s match-saving tackle against Dominic Gardiner late in the game.

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“Five guys getting back to save a try, you wouldn’t have seen that [from previous Blues teams]. A few years ago, Rieko Ioane probably wouldn’t have even attempted to get out and make that tackle, if we’re being brutally honest,” Wheeler told The Breakdown.

“The change in mindset in those guys is just impressive, and they are a real threat. Genuine title contenders if you go down to Christchurch and put on a display like that, unbelievable.”

Wheeler reserved praise for Romano, the 2015 World Cup-winning former All Blacks lock who joined the Blues this season after missing out on a contract at the Crusaders after having spent more than a decade in Christchurch.

The 36-year-old veteran went on to play a crucial role in helping the Blues beat his former team at Orangetheory Stadium, and Wheeler suggested much of the Blues’ success this year has coincided with MacDonald’s recruitment of Romano.

“I always questioned, teams have always talked about, the Blues’ soft underbelly when, in those moments, those big moments in games, generally they found a way to lose games, not win games,” Wheeler told The Breakdown.

“With the belief that [Romano’s] brought into that team, he has transformed that, he’s transformed mindsets, and that young Blues forward pack, they are so young, but they have invested in these guys.

“They’ve invested in them a few years ago, they’ve spent the cash on some big-name players – Beauden Barrett, namely, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, and probably Luke Romano, somehow getting him out of a Crusaders stronghold.

“[The Crusaders] don’t give up their players easily, especially an experienced campaigner like [Romano]. He has done wonders for that forward pack and, without a doubt, a really, really key signing. It can’t be understated his influence on that team.”

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