It’s a widely accepted rule that the best Super Rugby teams all need an immensely talented first five-eighth taking on the playmaking duties.
Take a look back through history at the Super Rugby champions and you shouldn’t be surprised to see the sheer class of the men that ran out in the season finales – Carlos Spencer, Andrew Mehrtens and Stephen Larkham in the past and, more recently, the likes of Morne Steyn, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. It’s basically a hall of fame of Southern Hemisphere first five-eighths.
There is the odd exception to the rule but in 22 years of tournaments you can’t be too put off by seeing Derrick Hougaard and Bernard Foley’s names alongside the others – neither player falls into the same category as the likes of Larkham and Barrett, but they were still very rounded players that complemented their teams well. They were also helped by having exceptional playmakers around them in other positions, namely Fourie du Preez and Kurtley Beale.
Given this commonality between championship teams, it’s not difficult to see why the Blues have struggled to put together a successful campaign since Spencer left the team in 2005.
The Blues, with the largest catchment area for New Zealand teams, won the Super Rugby competition in 1996 and 1997 – the first two years of its conception. In 2003 they took out the trophy once more but since then they’ve had to settle for two lone semi-finals appearances in 2007 and 2011.
Over the latter half of the Blues’ existence, they’ve struggled to regularly field a first five capable of taking the team all in the way in Super Rugby. Luke McAlister was promising in the mid-2000s but always looked more assured in the midfield than as the sole playmaker. Nick Evans also returned to the Blues from the Highlanders in 2008 and helped guide the Blues to sixth place but he promptly departed New Zealand only a year later, inhibiting any chance of forming strong combinations in the team.
That’s not to suggest that the Blues haven’t been producing talent – nor have they necessarily failed to recruit players with great potential into the region. Ihaia West, Michael Hobbs, Stephen Brett, and Gareth Anscombe, among others, were all earmarked as players with immense potential who, for one reason or another, failed to kick on for the Auckland-based franchise.
Even now, the Blues are blessed with three of the most promising first fives in New Zealand in the forms of Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer – but this has always been the Blues biggest problem: they have number 10s with great potential but are never proven performers.
It’s not a secret that the best teams in any sports competition succeed so regularly over a long period of time because they have excellent succession planning. When one world class player leaves a team, there should always be a player ready to take the reins who has been groomed as the obvious successor. Unless a team has both an Obi-Wan and a Luke, it’s impossible to maintain any form of long-term success.
The Crusaders are the obvious benchmark for succession planning in Super Rugby. Carter spent more than a decade as the first choice flyhalf for the Crusaders and during that time a number of players were also given game time running the cutter. Colin Slade and Tom Taylor both spent a number of years learning from Carter and both progressed into the All Blacks due to this mentoring.
When Carter finally called it quits in 2015, so too did Slade and Taylor (a testament to Carter’s longevity and commitment to New Zealand), but Richie Mo’unga was ready to step into the playmaker role. Mo’unga, of course, wasn’t thrust into the team from nowhere, however. He had already spent time in the Crusaders wider training squad and so was already being mentored by three of the best number 10s in the country.
Mo’uga isn’t likely to be leaving the Crusaders any time soon, but already the Canterbury team has started identifying the next future first five with both Mitch Hunt and Brett Cameron getting game time at 10.
Look at some of New Zealand’s other more recent successful first fives and you’ll find that they were mentored by successful older players during their formative years. Cruden, although lacking a great mentor when he debuted for the Hurricanes in 2011, was selected in the All Blacks squad in his first year of Super Rugby. His time with the New Zealand national team was no doubt instrumental in his progression as a first five because he was able to learn from some of the best modern 10s around – specifically, Carter and Slade.
It’s no surprise that, although he showed outstanding promise, it wasn’t until 2012 with the Chiefs that Cruden really looked like a world beater. At that point, he’d had a couple of years of professional rugby under his belt and played with some of the top first fives in the country.
Beauden Barrett too benefited from a similar kind of apprenticeship. When he first joined the Hurricanes in 2011, he was only offered a wider training squad berth – but he still managed to get some game time. More importantly, however, was that he was able to bide his time behind Cruden and work on some of the finer aspects of the first five game.
Barrett, who appealed more as a fullback than a first five, has improved his game at 10 to the point where he earned two World Rugby Player of the Year awards. Though there are still aspects of his game that could use some more finesse, his time working alongside Cruden at the Hurricanes and then in the All Blacks (also alongside Carter) did wonders for his playmaking skills.
Lima Sopoaga, New Zealand’s fourth-choice number 10 for 2015, also benefited from playing alongside a more experienced mentor. Sopoaga joined the Highlanders in 2011 as a back up to the also relocating Colin Slade (who was on a quest for more game time).
Sopoaga, at only 20 years old, was a newbie on the Super Rugby scene and, once again, had shown some promise with Wellington but still looked like he had a long way to go. Sopoaga was brought into the action a little earlier than expected due to a number of reasons (Slade’s infamous glass jaw being one of them) and his game developed immensely over a number of years, culminating in the Highlanders winning their first ever Super Rugby title in 2015.
First five-eighth is one of the most technically challenging and nuanced positions in any sport in the world, let alone rugby. Although from time to time a young player does enter the scene who flourishes from day one, most need a number of years to develop into an elite player. This development is amplified considerably when a more experienced mentor is on the scene to offer the wisdom they’ve picked up over their years in charge.
The Blues, for the sizeable population they have available to them, have continually failed to plan for the future. Young players with potential are regularly signed up then cast aside when, after a year or two, they fail to become world-class players (surprising no one). The Blues then revert back to the drawing board and bring in a new, young number 10 (if not two or three) then witness the same results.
Without an experienced mentor available to guide the younger players, however, this cycle is going to continue endlessly until the Blues get lucky and sign a player who defies the odds and achieves greatness on their own – something which has little chance of happening.
Adding more fuel to the flames is the fact that in recent years the Blues have struggled to produce any local talent in the key number 10 role. Plummer is the first player schooled in the Blues region for a number of seasons – you have to go back to 2016 when Matt McGahan and Dan Bowden represented the Blues and the year before when Simon Hickey was entrusted the coveted jersey to find local representatives.
Compare the local products with players sourced from outside the region and it gets a little bit alarming. Recent imports include Perofeta (Taranaki), Black (Manawatu), Ihaia West (Hawke’s Bay), Bryn Gatland (Waikato), Baden Kerr (Counties Manukau), Piers Francis (England and Counties Manukau), Stephen Brett (Canterbury), Michael Hobbs (Wellington) and Jimmy Gopperth (Wellington). Of those imported players, not one of them stayed in the region past the age of 26.
Over the years the Blues have tried to bring in an experienced 10 to handle the playmaking responsibilities or mentor the younger first fives in the team but most targets have wisely rebuked their offers. Perhaps the answer for the Blues is to simply hold on to their more experienced players for longer periods of time – even if they aren’t going to be world beaters in the future. At least then they will have wise heads on the roster who can guide the next ‘big thing’ coming through the ranks when they finally crack Super Rugby.
Whilst many of the Blues’ discarded first fives have yet to achieve anything to write home about, Anscombe is now the starting 10 for the Grand Slam-winning Wales team – he is now the exact kind of experienced player that the Blues have tried to bring to Auckland in the past. Maybe if Anscombe wasn’t so quickly cut from the roster at the end of 2012 it wouldn’t have been eight years since the Blues last made the Super Rugby finals.
Year after year, new first fives arrive at the Blues to much fan fair, and year after year these young players fail to match the hype that comes with them. This is rarely the fault of the players themselves – if they aren’t given a supportive environment populated with proven mentors then can anyone really expect them to develop their game on their own?
Failing to plan for the future is planning to fail – and the Blues have been planning to fail for a long time now.
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