Seven weeks ago, the Blues were in the middle of a rare streak of success that had catapulted them into the stratosphere of playoff contention.
A three-match losing run to open their 2019 campaign reeked of the mediocrity that Super Rugby fans have come to expect from the three-time champions over the past decade-and-a-half.
Shoddy goal-kicking and the might of Braydon Ennor allowed the Crusaders to escape Eden Park with a tight win in round one, while losses on the road to the Sharks and Jaguares were disappointing for the Auckland franchise, although not overly surprising.
After all, the Blues are yet to make the Super Rugby post-season after reaching the semi-finals in 2011 and came into this year off the back of a 14th-place finish in 2018.
However, the tide turned in round four.
Hosting the Sunwolves at QBE Stadium in the North Shore suburb of Albany, the Sonny Bill Williams-captained side clinched a 28-20 victory over the Japanese club, with the sudden death of ex-Blues prop Mike Tamoaieta providing plenty of motivation for the mourning team.
From there onwards, consecutive wins against the Highlanders, Stormers and Waratahs elevated the Blues to as high as fifth as the likes of Rieko Ioane, Ma’a Nonu and Tom Robinson turned heads with consistently impressive performances.
By round eight, many considered the Blues as genuine play-off contenders, something they hadn’t been regarded as in eight years.
That was until round nine, which was the first defeat of a four-match losing streak against the Chiefs, Highlanders, Brumbies, and Hurricanes.
That sent the Blues tumbling back down to reality, and with just four matches to play in the 2019 regular season, they lie in 11th spot.
A drought-breaking win against the Chiefs last weekend helped alleviate the stress that Leon MacDonald’s squad were under, and with 26 points to their name, they trail the eighth-placed Highlanders by just three points with a game in hand.
All of this bodes well for a shot at a play-offs berth, and if they can secure that, their season will be lauded as an outrageous turnaround in success, and the appointment of MacDonald as head coach during pre-season will be deemed a genius decision.
However, 2019 could just as easily end in similar fashion to that of a car crash with an away clash against the high-flying Crusaders, a match against the South African conference-leading Bulls, a trip to Australia to face the Reds and another away fixture against the Hurricanes all still to come.
It’s a difficult run home to the playoffs, and if the Blues can navigate it successfully, then they will absolutely deserve the superlatives that will inevitably be thrown their way.
That seems difficult to envisage, though, and it begs the question that if the Blues stayed as consistent as they were during their rich mid-season vein of form, how much would their season be riding on these final four matches?
As it stands, the outcome of those matches are going to be imperative as to whether they make the top eight or not, but if they were able to sustain that surprise winning run, then the pressure associated with these upcoming fixtures would not be evident.
As MacDonald, his assistants and his bosses reflect on 2019 at the end of the season, they will attribute their inconsistency to their likely demise, because – despite being within touching distance of the quarter-finals – it seems increasingly unlikely they will be appearing in the post-season.
So, what do they need to fix to ensure 2020 will be a fruitful campaign?
The honest answer is that nobody really knows, and if anyone did, the Blues would have regularly made the playoffs in the years following on from 2011.
Everybody has their own opinion as to what needs to change for the Blues to regain their long-lost status as a Super Rugby powerhouse, but, as these attempted changes come into fruition, everybody is yet to see real change in the Blues’ fortunes.
With that being said, there is certainly room for improvement within the Blues’ squad moving forward, and as MacDonald continues his side’s long-winded search for playoff glory, the movement of players in and out of the franchise is inevitable.
For all the Rieko Ioane’s, Ma’a Nonu’s and Tom Robinson’s within the side, there are positions that need to be strengthened if the Blues are serious and realistic about challenging for a top eight finish.
Perhaps one of the most pressing areas that needs tending to is in the tight five.
In Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, they have two test quality props that anchor both sides of the scrum, while the likes of Marcel Renata and Sione Mafileo bring with them good cover from off the pine.
It’s at hooker and lock, however, that there is more of a concern.
Last month, the Blues re-signed veteran rake James Parsons to a two-year contract extension, while also managing to tie 21-test second rower Patrick Tuipulotu down on a one-year deal.
Tuipulotu’s re-signing was a good piece of business, as he provides size and power that no other lock in the side possesses, but the capture of Parsons’ signature is questionable.
At 32-years-old and with over 100 Super Rugby caps to his name, Parsons contributes excessive amounts of experience to the franchise, but he lacks the ability of every other starting hooker in the country.
Dane Coles and Codie Taylor are New Zealand’s undisputed premier talents in the No. 2 jersey, while the fight between Liam Coltman and Nathan Harris for the third-choice hooker role in the All Blacks’ World Cup squad has been intriguing at best, entertaining at worst.
Parsons is a long way off competing with those four hookers from the Hurricanes, Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs for national honours, and the fact that the Blues have signed him on for another two years could be an indication that he’s in line for extended tenure in the middle of the front row.
Behind him, former New Zealand U20 captain Leni Apisai remains a back-up option, but has been underwhelming, to say the least since joining from the Hurricanes last year, while Matt Moulds has signed for Worcester in the English Premiership.
Moulds’ departure opens up space for at least one new player to come in, and with Apisai not signed on for next year, there could be room for another new hooker.
Current New Zealand U20 skipper Kianu Kereru-Symes already has Mitre 10 Cup experience with Hawke’s Bay, and impressed for the Magpies last year thanks to his strong build and leadership qualities.
Despite being within the Hurricanes’ catchment area, his home franchise have a logjam at hooker through Coles, Asafo Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli, all of whom have been signed on for next year, meaning a move north might be on the cards for Kereru-Symes.
Another victim of the Hurricanes’ conveyer belt of talent at hooker could be James O’Reilly.
For the past two seasons, O’Reilly has failed to win a full-time contract with the Hurricanes, playing fourth-fiddle to Coles, Aumua and Riccitelli, only earning game time as an injury replacement despite playing well for Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup.
Finally cracking the Hurricanes’ set-up after years of toiling away could be a goal for the 24-year-old, but he might find that his best chance of playing time lies in Auckland, especially with Parsons not getting any younger.
Aside from Tuipulotu, the Blues don’t have any standout options at lock, which contributes to the relatively weak make-up of their tight five.
Josh Goodhue, younger brother of Crusaders and All Blacks midfielder Jack, has finally been given a chance to try and cash in on the potential he showed as a youngster through regular playing time, but he will probably need a few more years to fully deliver.
Jacob Pierce is a largely unknown prospect outside of the Blues region, but as an ex-member of the New Zealand Barbarians Schools in 2015 and the world champion New Zealand U20 side in 2017, he looms as Goodhue’s likely second-row partner for the long-term future.
Scott Scrafton and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti have both shown glimpses of talent since coming on board with the Blues in 2016, but neither have been consistently impactful over the last four seasons.
If it’s the second row that the Blues are looking to bolster in their quest for sustained consistency, then Newcastle and Canada lock Evan Olmstead – who stood out in Auckland’s title-winning Mitre 10 Cup season last year and was involved in the Blues’ pre-season this year – could be the right man for the job.
The same could be said for James Tucker, the star Waikato lock who was inexplicably overlooked by the Chiefs for this season, and Tom Rowe, the Otago second rower whose work ethic hasn’t gone unnoticed for the Sunwolves in Japan.
In Tom Robinson, Dalton Papali’i, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane, the Blues have a strong core group of players in the loose forwards next year, with youngster Hoskins Sotutu certainly one for the future.
All three halfbacks – Jonathan Ruru, Augustine Pulu and Sam Nock – are similar in terms of their impact on-field, but, like Parsons at hooker, none of the trio compare to other halfbacks around the country.
Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith and Hurricanes No. 9 TJ Perenara are by far considered the two best scrumhalves in New Zealand, while Brad Weber leads the four-way battle for the third-choice spot ahead of Chiefs teammate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Crusaders duo Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond.
The three Aucklanders are all a long way off from joining that race for national honours, and while Ruru has enjoyed the most starts for the Blues this year, ex-captain Pulu the most experienced with two All Blacks caps from 2014, and Nock the most promising option in the long run, none exactly set the world alight like those from other franchises.
None of those three have been signed on for next year, and although they would all provide safe options for the Blues, retaining all three would contradict the rise from mediocrity and inconsistency that MacDonald should be searching for.
In saying that, there are slim pickings at halfback across the country, but someone like exciting Otago, Samoa Sevens and Manu Samoa product Melani Matavao might be the spark at No. 9 that the Blues are craving for.
First-fives Otere Black, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta have all been locked in for 2020, and, with ages varying between 20 and 24, all three possess the ability to challenge each other for the starting role at No. 10 for the next few seasons.
In the midfield, the up-and-coming TJ Faiane has been re-secured on a two-year deal, but the departures of veterans Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu appear imminent.
Levi Aumua has been under-utilised given his powerful physical presence, but MacDonald should look to keep him on the Blues’ books as a possible replacement for Williams and Nonu at second-five.
Deployed mainly on the wing this year, 20-year-old Tanielu Tele’a has shown plenty of promise, and could be used as another midfield option going forward.
As far as replacing Williams and Nonu in the squad, Orbyn Leger presents a compelling case for a contract through his experience at the Blues, Chiefs, Counties Manukau and New Zealand U20 in recent times, while his role as a playmaker and distributor provides an alternative to power-based players Aumua and Tele’a.
Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke remain the only two outside backs signed on for the next few years, but both are prodigious talents who will dominate the wing positions in the coming years.
A New Zealand Schools representative in 2014, fullback Jordan Trainor still has time on his side after years of missed opportunities due to either injury or subpar performances in Super Rugby.
He should start at fullback with the confirmed exit of Melani Nanai to Worcester and the likely departure of Michael Collins.
Two-time All Black Matt Duffie is still lingering within the Blues set-up after failing to establish himself following a breakout campaign in 2017, but MacDonald will still need a couple of additions to bolster his outside back stocks.
Young duo Scott Gregory, a star for both Northland in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup and the All Blacks Sevens in this season’s World Sevens Series, and Kaleb Trask, the Bay of Plenty starlet who would have been a New Zealand U20 representative if not for injury, could be the final pieces to MacDonald’s puzzle.
As mentioned earlier, nobody knows exactly how to fix the Blues, or else they would have ended their playoff drought – which will probably be continued again this year – long ago.
However, if it’s mediocrity and inconsistency that MacDonald is looking to make amends for in his bid to get the Blues back into the realm of Super Rugby title contenders, then these personnel changes within his squad could very well be the remedy he needs to revitalise this long-suffering franchise.
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