The Blues have a problem at centre and Rieko Ioane is not the solution.
So says assistant coach Tana Umaga, who could play 12 and 13 with equal facility in his day. But the Blues have three key players – Sonny Bill Williams, Ma’a Nonu and TJ Faiane – who are all best suited to second five. Without a bonafide centre, the Blues have struggled to create space for their outsides and in fact, have scored just five tries in three outings. Last year they had 12 tries after three matches, though even then they grappled with deciding who was their best midfield as injuries bit hard.
Their problems run much deeper than just not being in synch through the midfield, but it is a useful starting point when one considers that Rieko Ioane has been under-employed on the left wing.
The Blues have opted for the Sonny Bill Williams (12)/TJ Faiane (13) combination for Saturday’s must-win home clash against the Sunwolves, who bring their own Kiwi No 12, Michael Little, in top form. Williams, who is down on his offloads and attacking punch, and Faiane also started against the Sharks, but Faiane is now seen as the main man at centre. Levi Aumua, the powerful Tasman centre, will come off the bench, as he covers wing.
Nonu played well enough individually at centre against the Crusaders but had his hands full with Braydon Ennor.
“Every week there’s going to be a headline. Either Sonny or Ma’a is going to miss out at 12. It’s a challenge for us to know exactly what that looks like,” says Blues head coach Leon MacDonald, who declared only a fortnight ago that he does not see either Williams or Nonu as a centre.
“Given the travel and age of a couple of the midfielders, it makes sense to manage the minutes between them and they are okay with that. The idea is to have them playing a lot of minutes in total throughout the whole season.
“It hasn’t gelled quite as well as we would have liked. We’re trying to do the best we can to get those combinations settled.”
Quite right too, but that puts the onus on Faiane, who is most effective at second five as seen in his breakout 2018 Mitre 10 Cup season with Auckland, where he partnered with Tumua Manu, now with the Chiefs.
Faiane is not playing badly in the No 13 jersey, especially on defence, but it is a fact that the Blues attack is stilted and they have yet to create a slick backline try. George Moala might have been the answer but is now wearing the yellow of Clermont in France. Orbyn Leger was used for much of 2018, even though he is a five-eighths. He made a decent fist of it but is now down the highway with the Chiefs. Michael Collins finished the 2018 season there for the Blues, but he was dropped after a nightmarish first two games at fullback in 2019. Young wing Tanielu Tele’a has plenty of background, though mainly at First XV level, at centre, while another First XV centre star Caleb Clarke, is not due back from a knee injury for several weeks, and is a wing at this level.
Umaga, who was heavily criticised for shifting the world’s best left wing to the No 12 jersey for large tracts of 2018, says Ioane will not be used to solve the No 13 issues, even just to get him more ball.
“We don’t need him at this stage. With all the injuries in the outside backs, we can’t move him. We didn’t have this calibre of player in the midfield last year,” Umaga told RugbyPass.
“We are conscious that Rieks hasn’t had a lot of ball out wide. So is he, but the other side of it is that teams are shutting us off getting it to him. He’s a superstar, so we’ve got to be smarter about how we get him the ball.”
Funnily enough, the best Blues’ attacking move against the Jaguares came off the first lineout, with Ioane making a midfield thrust off a nice inside ball by Nonu. Thereafter there was too much dusty passing and poor decision-making.
“We’re trying to utilise the resources and experience we have as best we can. It’s been tough juggling the three midfielders. We’ve brought in Levi as we know we’ve got to keep everyone involved and he was good for us in pre-season. And Tanielu has come of age sooner than we thought,” Umaga adds.
He is endorsing Faiane to come good on attack in the 13 jersey.
“TJ is probably the least experienced at centre, but Leon and I, with our backgrounds at centre, feel he’s got a natural game that fits there. He’s a busy player, high work-rate and good defender out wide.”
Of course, the midfield is not going to cook up anything if there is stilted service from the halves and slow ball from the pack.
The Blues are on notice in several areas.
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