It’s fair to say that Matt Duffie probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into when, in 2016, he made the switch from the Melbourne Storm to the Blues.
In Duffie’s six seasons with the Storm, the NRL heavyweights had made the finals five times and won one title. In that same time frame, the Blues had chalked up just one finals appearance and finished 10th or lower on the Super Rugby ladder four times.
In 2015, the year before Duffie arrived, the Blues recorded their worst season in their then-20-year history, managing just three wins from 16 matches.
“I must admit, I didn’t use to watch the Blues that closely when I was playing league,” Duffie told RugbyPass. “Between 2010 to 2015, I understood that they hadn’t done that well, but I probably didn’t realise the extent of the attitude towards the club in New Zealand.”
Once the darlings of New Zealand rugby, the Auckland franchise with the largest catchment area in the country were the poster-children of under-performance. Despite regularly having numerous long-term All Blacks on the books as well as coaches who had proven themselves at other levels of the game, the results just never came for the Blues – and the media were never hesitant to remind the side.
Critics regularly lambasted the fall from grace of the inaugural Super 12 title-winners while local fans either lamented their side’s poor results or ignored the team altogether. Those outside the region were more than happy to put the boot in.
“When you’re at Melbourne, especially if you start your career there, you probably don’t realise how lucky you are to be away from the spotlight,” said Duffie. “You can just get on with whatever you’re getting on with because you’re normally getting wins on the board. You see other clubs just getting torn apart by a media and all that sort of stuff and you sympathise with them but don’t really know what that’s like.
“When I came over to the Blues, it was a bit of an eye-opener, to be honest. I just thought it was normal that five, six camera crews roll up to our trainings, but I didn’t realise that that doesn’t happen in any other Super Rugby clubs around the country.”
Duffie himself didn’t escape criticism either.
“I probably struggled a little bit in my debut of Super Rugby,” Duffie admitted. “After getting pumped up during the pre-season, I got absolutely shredded in the media after my debut game.
“Probably my favourite article was when I was named one of the six worst signings in Blues history, or something like that, that was a good one. I don’t even think they rated it from one to six so at least I’m maybe not in the top five. That article actually motivated me.”
That seems to be the nature of the beast in New Zealand. When the results are going your way, an inexperienced player can have an underwhelming debut without it trumpeting end times. When results haven’t been great for a while, however, everything goes under the microscope.
Otere Black is making every play a winning one right now but the Manawatu pivot didn't have the easiest start to his Super Rugby career with the Blues, writes @TomVinicombe. #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/8xtJYGAcRF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 24, 2020
“At the end of the day, we were training just as hard as clubs that were winning all the time, we were running just as far, throwing as many passes, doing as many hours in the analysis,” Duffie said. “That’s just the way it is when you’re playing for the Blues.
“We just put our helmets on and our shields up and just cop it but yes, it is one of those things and I’m old enough now to understand that it’s just going to happen and it can be frustrating, but it’s an opinion, everyone has an opinion.
“You just learn to live with it and at the end of the day, it’s the beast that drives the finances of the game in New Zealand and all the TV rights and all the publicity that New Zealand might get through its biggest sport. It’s like a religion over here so, to turn it into a positive, it’s a privilege to be a part of it, but that did take a while to come to terms with.”
Despite the bagging from the media that Duffie received in his first season with the Blues, the former Storm wing eventually forced his way into the national set-up and played two matches for the All Blacks in 2017.
Neither match was designated test status, however, as Duffie’s two games came against the Barbarian and a French XV. That makes Duffie one of the few players to have played for the All Blacks post-2007, but not have earned a test cap (Akira Ioane and Asafo Aumua are the other two). That doesn’t faze the 29-year-old, however.
“Yes, uncapped – it is what it is. I think the thing about being an outside back is that there’s always a new fella on the scene and it’s so competitive, not only at national but also Super Rugby level.
“I’m just real grateful that I’ve got those jerseys in my little box of memorabilia I’ve accumulated over my career. I don’t even think I’ve watched the games back yet, but one day, when I’m old and done, I’ll sit back, enjoy a beer and watch those games.”
While it may have taken a few years, Duffie’s Blues side are now finally starting to show promise of a resurgence. A loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night doesn’t undermine the seven wins they managed on the trot in the lead-up to that game – including four against NZ opposition.
The emergence of Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke on the wings, Rieko Ioane’s new lease of life in the midfield and the coming of age of Otere Black means the backline is ticking along nicely (the addition of Beauden Barrett is never going to hurt, either). There’s plenty of grunt, power and commitment in the forward pack too.
It’s the remarkable form of the backs that’s keeping Duffie on his toes, given this is his last season under his current contract with the Blues.
“We’re pretty lucky and I think it’s all good headaches for the coaches to have,” Duffie said of the talent at the Blues’ disposal. “The intensity of the competition will probably see a fair few players getting a crack. No matter where you sit, you’ve got to be ready to go because your name could get pulled out to have a run.
“I’m at the point of my career where I’m really just enjoying the day-to-day training and competing for spots and I think it’s one of those things that keeps you feeling young because you’ve got these twenty-somethings running about.
“I’ve been in professional sport long enough to know to handle the stress that when you come to the end of your contract, when you’re playing for your livelihood. We’ll just see how that plays out in the next couple of months.”
There’s no question of Matt Duffie’s continuing desire to perform and succeed. He may not have known what he was getting himself into when he first arrived at the Blues but, like the rest of his teammates, the Christchurch-born outside back is willing to put his body on the line for the team he grew up supporting. The criticism that comes from outsiders looking in just motivates him more.
“Coming over was a bit of a shock, but I guess it’s fuelled the fire for a lot of us guys that have been here since 2015 or earlier to actually hang around, have a crack and see if we can turn the ship,” Duffie said.
“We’re just starting to see the fruits of not just two years of work, but five years of trying different things. It is nice to be at the point where I feel like the club is at a stage where it can take off from here. Whether I’m around next year is irrelevant to my thoughts towards that.”
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