There are little more than four weeks until the new Super Rugby Aotearoa season kicks-off, and all five teams across New Zealand are deep into their pre-season campaigns.
For the Blues, the summer months provides them with a chance to lay the foundations to push forward and attempt to finish one place better than last year as they eye their first title since 2003.
Should they clinch either the Super Rugby Aotearoa or Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competitions, it would be quite the achievement given that they will be without star playmaker Beauden Barrett.
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year is enjoying his six-month sabbatical in Japan, leaving head coach Leon MacDonald without the man who took Super Rugby by storm when he announced his move to Auckland from the Hurricanes in 2019.
Instead, MacDonald has to look elsewhere to fill the first-five and fullback roles, the two positions Barrett donned in his maiden campaign with the Blues last year.
However, Barrett’s foreseeable departure allowed MacDonald to prepare well for his absence, as reflected by the depth of quality within his first-five and outside back stocks.
In the form of veteran first-five Otere Black, the Blues have a trusted and reliable operator in the No. 10 jersey who partnered Barrett in a playmaking axis in five of the franchise’s seven Super Rugby Aotearoa matches in 2020.
Entrusted as the Blues’ primary first-five prior to Barrett’s arrival, Black stands as the leading candidate to resume his duties in the No. 10 jersey in a year where the team will rely on his experience and leadership in a backline brimming with youth.
Where that leaves the exciting Stephen Perofeta remains to be seen.
Equally adept at first-five and fullback, the 23-year-old was often deployed in the No. 15 jersey to work in tandem with Black in the pre-COVID-19 edition of Super Rugby last year.
In fact, the Blues were undefeated in the four matches Black and Perofeta were paired up with each other in playmaking capacities until the competition was suspended in March.
It’s not unreasonable, then, to suggest their pair were key in the franchise’s success that saw them fit in fourth spot with five wins from seven matches at the time of Super Rugby’s suspension.
View this post on Instagram
Both have played at this level for quite some time now, and with contrasting styles of play – Black is more conservative, with Perofeta possessing greater attacking attributes – the duo seem natural fits to start at No. 10 and No. 15 come their season-opener against the Hurricanes in Wellington on February 27.
But, as mentioned earlier, MacDonald has prepared well for the season-long loss of Barrett, and has taken that opportunity to recruit Zarn Sullivan.
The 20-year-old was a star for Auckland en route to their runners-up finish in the Mitre 10 Cup, where he primarily played at fullback.
It’s at first-five where his future lies, though, having played there as a schoolboy and at representative level, and it’s for that reason he looms as promising prospect capable of slotting straight into the Blues’ dual-playmaking axis.
MacDonald hinted last month that Sullivan could be in line for extensive game time with Barrett out of the selection frame, when he singled out the 1.93m, 101kg youngster as his player to watch for the coming season on The Conversation podcast.
“We’ve got some young players that we’ve signed coming through, who’ve got a lot of potential. I’m pretty excited about some of our younger talent coming through – at fullback in particular,” MacDonald added.
The competition between Sullivan and Perofeta for the No. 10 and No. 15 jerseys is intense enough, but once the additional threats posed by first-five Harry Plummer and fullback Emoni Narawa are taken into account, it seems no player’s place in MacDonald’s starting side is guaranteed.
Even more intriguing is which wings will join Sullivan, Perofeta or Narawa in the Blues’ back three.
If there are any certainties, it would be breakout All Blacks powerhouse Caleb Clarke, who took Super Rugby Aotearoa and international rugby by storm in 2020.
Recently voted by RugbyPass as the best wing in Super Rugby, Clarke has the left wing spot down packed, but who starts on the other wing is anyone’s guess.
In his debut Super Rugby season, Mark Telea started in every match and scored seven tries to make himself at home on the wing.
That should place him as a frontrunner to join Clarke as the two wings, but given how heavily the Blues are stocked out wide, Telea’s place could be taken by any one of in-demand teenager Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Northland veteran Jone Macilai-Tori or Auckland star AJ Lam.
View this post on Instagram
Rieko Ioane’s seemingly permanent shift to the midfield makes the back three equation a bit easier to dissect, as he will likely resume his solid partnership with TJ Faiane in the middle of the backline.
Don’t rule the talented Tanielu Tele’a from impressing either in the midfield or on the wing, though, as he looks to bounce back from a 2020 season that was robbed from him by injury.
At halfback, Finlay Christie finished last season as the best No. 9 at the Blues, and probably the fourth-best in the country, as evidenced by his selection as Brad Weber’s back-up for the South Island in the North vs South match.
That should ensure his place in the starting is retained, with fan favourite Sam Nock and Blues Bronco champion Jonathan Ruru jostling for a spot on the bench.
In the pack, the Blues boast some of the strongest depth in the country at both prop and in the loose forwards.
The addition of Nepo Laulala from the Chiefs gives the side four current All Blacks to pick from each week.
A regular starter for the Blues and All Blacks, Ofa Tuungafasi is likely to start the season as the preferred tighthead over Laulala, while Alex Hodgman and Karl Tu’inukuafe interchanged frequently in the pecking orders of their respective sides last year.
The back row trio of Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu was destructively brilliant for the Blues, and it’s hard to imagine MacDonald deviating away from those three when the season kicks-off.
However, one-test All Blacks flanker Dillon Hunt has moved north from the Highlanders, Blues veteran Blake Gibson constantly pushes for starting honours and cult hero Tom Robinson always impresses when not injured, so the competition for the flanker and No. 8 roles will be relentless all season long.
Kurt Eklund leads the charge to claim the starting hooker role after earning selection for the North Island and Maori All Blacks following a successful debut year with the Blues.
Meanwhile, in the second row, captain Patrick Tuipulotu could be partnered with any one of Josh Goodhue – a standout in Super Rugby Aotearoa – or experienced operator Gerard Cowley-Tuioti.
Keep an eye out for highly-touted lock Sam Darry, who made headlines by opting to join the Blues rather than stay in his native Canterbury with the Crusaders.
Potential Blues line-up for first match of 2021 season
1. Alex Hodgman
2. Kurt Eklund
3. Ofa Tuungafasi
4. Patrick Tuipulotu
5. Josh Goodhue
6. Akira Ioane
7. Dalton Papalii
8. Hoskins Sotutu
9. Finlay Christie
10. Otere Black
11. Caleb Clarke
12. TJ Faiane
13. Rieko Ioane
14. Mark Telea
15. Stephen Perofeta
16. James Parsons
17. Karl Tu’inukuafe
18. Nepo Laulala
19. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti
20. Dillon Hunt
21. Sam Nock
22. Zarn Sullivan
23. Tanielu Tele’a
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now