The Blues have seemingly turned over a new leaf in 2020 and prior to Super Rugby’s suspension at the beginning of March, were sitting second in the New Zealand conference. When the new replacement competition Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks off in less than a month’s time, coach Leon MacDonald will be wanting his charges to continue where they left off but will also have to cope with having an influx of fit players.
The wider Auckland region has never struggled for outside back talent and MacDonald, himself a former fullback, will have to make some tough decisions leading into the Blues’ opener against the Hurricanes on June 14.
Telea has had a breakout season on the left wing and could well be the only starting certainty in the whole backline. English import Marchant has impressed both in the midfield and on the right-hand side of the park but will face competition from the likes of Matt Duffie, Emoni Narawa and returning players Tanielu Tele’a and Caleb Clarke.
Tele’a has been sidelined due to a shoulder injury this year while Clarke was committed to the national sevens set-up.
Duffie and Narawa have both spent time in the 15 jersey in 2020 but Stephen Perofeta, who was once trumpeted as the future saviour of the Blues in the first five role, has found a home at the back of the park.
Of course, there’s also the arrival of Beauden Barrett to consider.
MacDonald will have to decide whether Barrett is better employed at fullback, where’s he spent most of his recent test career, or at first five where he can probably have the most influence over the side.
If the season hadn’t been put on ice for so long then it may have been best to integrate the All Black slowly and start him in the fullback position where he would be free to focus primarily on his own game but the extended break may have changed MacDonald’s thinking.
Plummer, Marchant, Rieko Ioane and TJ Faiane have all clocked up minutes in the midfield but money will be on the latter pair to take the lead when the Hurricanes come to Auckland next month.
While Ioane lost his place on the wing in the New Zealand backline to George Bridge and Seve Reece last year, he’s had a spring in his step in 2020 and will have new All Blacks head coach Ian Foster frothing at the possibility of shifting the 23-year-old into the midfield late in matches to blitz tiring defences.
Fainae, meanwhile, has been Mr Consistent for the Blues and has continued on from his fine showing in 2019.
That leaves just the halfback jersey, which will likely be entrusted to Sam Nock who looked sharper and sharper as the weeks passed in the original 2020 competition.
All Blacks star Beauden Barrett has returned from lockdown in peak condition as the Blues returned to training on Monday.https://t.co/ab6pa04I1k
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 18, 2020
Finlay Christie’s return to full fitness could put Jonathan Ruru’s place on the bench under scrutiny too, despite the Auckland halfback being one of the fittest players in the squad.
Of course, the sheer intensity of derby after derby, week after week will mean that plenty of rotation is needed and you would expect almost everyone to get a run at some point.
The Blues will be wanting to continue the exceptional form that saw them win four matches in a row earlier in the year, which means Leon MacDonald has some big decisions to make ahead of the first round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Possible backline for Blues’ opening game of Super Rugby Aotearoa: Sam Nock, Beauden Barrett, Mark Telea, TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Matt Duffie, Stephen Perofeta; Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black, Joe Marchant.
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