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Leon MacDonald's big mistake: why David Havili would have been a better target than Beauden Barrett

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photos by Getty Images)

What Leon MacDonald wouldn’t give for David Havili.


It’s clear that MacDonald and the Blues have the makings of a useful Super Rugby side. The tight five are increasingly reliable, there’s workrate and aggression among the loose forwards, and some individual talent in the backs.

There’s no obvious nous, though. No leadership, no-one to take ownership of the winning and losing of a match.

The now-injured Rieko Ioane can flex all the muscles he likes, but his sphere of influence from the wing is nil.

What the Blues lack, and have done for years, is a playmaker. A man with vision and a broad skillset. You can have all the great athletes you like, but there’s no substitute for an ability to control a team and execute a gameplan.

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MacDonald’s no fool. He knows all that. It’s why he and the Blues sought to recruit Beauden Barrett from the Hurricanes.

But there’s the rub. Signing an elite All Black sounds a good idea, it’s just that it doesn’t always work out in practice.


Barrett’s not on deck for 2020 until some time in April. Having not deigned to appear in this year’s competition, at some point he’ll then trigger a clause in his contract that allows him to sit a season out entirely.

It’s good work if you can get it.

But it doesn’t help MacDonald much and, more broadly, underlines the value of what you might describe as the shrinking – and increasingly critical – middle tier of New Zealand rugby talent.

Havili played fullback and second five-eighth for the Crusaders in week one and, at short notice, handled the kicking duties as well. This week against the Chiefs, with Richie Mo’unga needing a spell to recover from a couple of niggles, Havili will run the Crusaders’ show from 10.

Is he the best player in New Zealand? Of course not, but few boast Havili’s array of skills or leadership ability.


Having captained Tasman to a Mitre 10 Cup title, he’ll now steer the Crusaders around Hamilton’s FMG Stadium on Saturday night. It might prove a success, it might not, but it doesn’t diminish Havili’s worth to the side.

Or that of reserve lock Luke Romano.

Our Super Rugby sides have become populated either by kids or All Blacks saving themselves for a rainy day. There’s now precious little in-between and while we inevitably focus on the Crusaders being without star All Blacks such as Kieran Read this year, there’s an argument to be made that Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua are much bigger losses.

Signing Beauden Barrett should be cause for celebration. Just as, once upon a time, we were all quick to applaud Jamie Joseph when he recruited Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu to the Highlanders or envy Todd Blackadder for having Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter at his disposal.

Only Blackadder never won a title at the Crusaders and Joseph only enjoyed any success in Dunedin once the big-name All Blacks left town.

In this era of rest weeks and restricted minutes for star players, guys who aren’t first-string All Blacks – but still boast degree of experience – are gold.

Yes we’re only one game in, but it was players such as Havili, Romano, Will Jordan, Lachlan Boshier, Tony Lamborn, Aidan Ross and Oli Jager who really excelled. Super Rugby is close to the pinnacle for them and they’re allowed to play every week. What more could you ask for?

In terms of Havili specifically, that playmaking ability provides the Crusaders with a vital point of difference. Between he and Mo’unga, you have options that only the Chiefs’ duo of Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie can match.

The Blues, at least until Barrett appears, don’t have anyone in that role, nor the Hurricanes, while the Highlanders are a bit of a curiosity, having pushed the emerging Josh Ioane out to 12 and installed Mitch Hunt at first five-eighth.

That’s an arrangement that could go either way, in part because neither Ioane nor Hunt are the finished article.

Havili is more seasoned, though, and the kind of guy who could influence the outcome of this year’s competition. He’s part of a Crusaders squad that still boasts its stars, but if they do go on and claim a fourth successive title, it will be because of men such as himself and Romano, Jordan, Michael Alaalatoa, Andrew Makalio, Mitchell Drummond, Quinten Strange, Billy Harmon, Mitchell Dunshea, Whetu Douglas, Tom Sanders and all the rest.

The stars might be front and centre of every team poster, but it’s the David Havilis of this world who win you competitions.

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