It may be a new season, but the same uncertainty about the Blues’ Super Rugby hopes remain.
Ever since their last play-offs appearance in 2011, it’s been a rugged time for the Auckland-based club, who have endured their most unsuccessful period in franchise history.
Seven seasons without playing in the play-offs is a record for the side, as is their woeful win record of just 35 per cent since 2012.
The talent and potential evident within the Blues over the last few years is undeniable, but it’s the team’s lack of depth and leadership, wavering commitment levels, faulty tactical decisions, unhealthy team culture and poor management from the boardroom down that has seen this once successful team crumble.
Such ineptness in recent times from a side that claimed three titles within the first eight years of Super Rugby has forced change going into the 2019 campaign, and no change has been more significant than in the head coach role.
Leon MacDonald has been promoted from assistant to head coach, replacing former boss and All Blacks teammate Tana Umaga, who has stood down to become an assistant.
It was a move that caught many off-guard, and one that has filled the Blues faithful with plenty of optimism heading into the new season.
Umaga’s underwhelming tenure at the helm of the Blues over the last three years saw him lose the faith of the players midway through last year’s awful campaign, of which they finished in 14th place.
What followed was an ugly string of results, which culminated in a publicised off-field altercation between Blake Gibson and Rieko Ioane, which left the latter with a black eye and a cut above his eyelid which required medical glue to keep shut.
That scuffle was the result of building tension within the squad due to a constant stream of disappointing losses, but with MacDonald – who is renowned for his hard-nosed, organised approach – at the helm in 2019, onlookers can expect a more disciplined outfit.
It’s that sort of approach that could flick the switch for the Blues.
Alama Ieremia, with the assistance of defence coach Sir Graham Henry, proved with Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup that a fresh face in the coaching box who can instil discipline and hold his side accountable for their actions can work wonders.
With plenty of players coming in from that victorious Auckland side of 2018, MacDonald’s task of engraining those values in his squad should be made easier.
One of the key players coming into the Blues from Ieremia’s Auckland team is 20-year-old first-five Harry Plummer.
The youngster played an integral role in Auckland’s run to the Mitre 10 Cup title with a series of composed performances that displayed maturity far beyond his years.
Those impressive outings in the playmaking role makes a compelling argument for Plummer to start over more seasoned campaigners Stephen Perofeta and Otere Black, with the latter finally set to make his long-awaited Blues debut after a year out due to injury.
Regardless of who starts at 10, the experience of those outside them in the midfield will be invaluable.
The return of Ma’a Nonu from Toulon was the other big off-season shock along with the change of coaches, and reports coming out of Blues headquarters is that the 36-year-old is in the shape of his career.
If that’s true, then the prospect of a midfield consisting of 103-test Nonu and vice-captain Sonny Bill Williams – who is likely entering his last year with New Zealand rugby – will be daunting for opposition defences, such is the talent and wisdom that the duo possess.
Williams joins a fresh leadership group, of which is led by Gibson and lock Patrick Tuipulotu.
Both men have points to prove, with Gibson looking to overcome injuries and last year’s altercation with Ioane to put him back into contention for the All Blacks, while Tuipulotu is fighting with the likes of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett for a spot at the World Cup.
Expect the co-captains to front up beside a solid forward pack, which has been bolstered by the addition of All Black prop Karl Tu’inukuafe to help offset the departure of club legend Jerome Kaino.
If No. 8 Akira Ioane can improve his work rate and defensive capabilities to validate the contract extension he earned last year, then those attributes, combined with his barnstorming ability with ball in hand, will prove to be lethal.
While the aforementioned names all have their strengths and have more than enough quality to take this side far, the uncertainty that has built over the last seven seasons still lingers as the Blues await their first trip to the play-offs since 2011.
So, with a new coach, fresh leadership group, and a strong-looking squad that has the potential to break the losing cycle that this franchise has found itself stuck in, the question remains the same – can the Blues snap their longest-ever play-offs drought?
Only time will tell, but with the ability in this side, they would have to be disappointed not to make the cut in 2019.
New Zealand Conference placing: 5th
Player of the Year: Akira Ioane
Rookie of the Year: Harry Plummer
Best Signing: Ma’a Nonu
Breakout Player: Dalton Papali’i
In: Ezekiel Lindenmuth (Auckland), Marcel Renata (Hurricanes), Karl Tu’inukuafe (Chiefs), Jacob Pierce (North Harbour), Jed Brown (Tasman), Tom Robinson (Northland), Hoskins Sotutu (Auckland), Harry Plummer (Auckland), Levi Aumua (Chiefs), Ma’a Nonu (Toulon), Tanielu Tele’a (Auckland)
Out: Pauliasi Manu (Sunwolves), Isaac Salmon (released), Mike Tamoaieta (released), Ross Wright (released), Lyndon Dunshea (released), Matiaha Martin (released), Ben Nee-Nee (released), Sione Havili (released), Jeroma Kaino (Toulouse), Antonio Kiri Kiri (Yorkshire Carnegie), Glenn Preston (released), Kara Pryor (Sunwolves), Murphy Taramai (released), Bryn Gatland (Highlanders), Daniel Kirkpatrick (released), Terrence Hepetema (released), Matthew Johnson (released), Orbyn Leger (released), Tumua Manu (Chiefs), George Moala (Clermont), Tamati Tua (released), Jordan Hyland (released)
Forwards: Alex Hodgman, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Sione Mafileo, Marcel Renata, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jed Brown, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Jimmy Tupou
Backs: Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu, Jono Ruru, Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer, Levi Aumua, TJ Faiane, Ma’a Nonu, Tanielu Tele’a, Sonny Bill Williams, Caleb Clarke, Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Jordan Trainor
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