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The simple lesson from Toulouse that Vern Cotter is emphasising at the Blues

By Ned Lester
Dalton Papali'i with the ball in hand for the Blues. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

When Scott Robertson formed the new All Blacks coaching staff, it sent shockwaves through the domestic coaching landscape. Super Rugby Pacific is looking very different in 2024 as a result, but have the power dynamics shifted at all?

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The Blues and Hurricanes had to recruit new head coaches, with neither opting to promote from within. The Crusaders lost Scott Hansen as well as their historic head coach, in addition to the loss of Jason Ryan the season prior.

While the reigning champions landed Rob Penney and the Hurricanes signed former All Blacks Sevens coach Clark Laidlaw, the Blues snagged themselves a big fish in former Scotland and Fiji head coach Vern Cotter.

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“Stern Vern” as he is affectionately named by past members of his teams, has steered the Blues to three pre-season wins over Japanese foes and the Chiefs, and backed that up with an opening-round demolition of the Fijian Drua in Whangarei.

He says the familiarity of New Zealand’s style of rugby has made his return especially enjoyable.

“Really enjoying it, enjoying the boys, they work hard, there’s some good players; there’s some good young guys.” He told The Front Row Daily Show. “There’s a good mix of talent and effort and it’s really good being back with people that have the same instinctive notion of the game after being away in foreign cultures.

“And they’re good at taking the piss. They’re good fun.”

Former All Black halfback Andy Ellis was conducting the interview and noted an edge to the Blues’ physicality in the first game of the season, and so queried whether that was a big focus of the new coach.

“It’s a physical game, so you can’t expect to play touch in 15 v 15 and go right to the end,” Cotter replied. “If you look at the Crusaders and what they’ve done over the years, or other teams that have been successful, if you look at Toulouse in France; everyone says they’re a great team that can play with the ball and move into space but they only did it because they won collisions and had a good forward pack.

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“So I think you’ve just got to be realistic about it. That’ll be the key because we’ve got some good boys that like space, we’ve just got to create it and rugby’s still about space at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

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The Blues’ forward pack is boosted in round two by the return of Akira Ioane after the loose forward missed round one with a minor injury. Ofa Tu’ungafasi will also make his season debut in Super Round, the prop being the team’s only active All Black front rower after the departure of Nepo Laulala. Former All Black Angus Ta’avao returned to the Auckland squad over the offseason to help ease the burden of that loss.

Those prop stocks were close to being bolstered in a giant way for 2025 though, as Cotter revealed he was chasing one of the country’s best young talents as contract discussions were taking place last year.

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Unfortunately for Blues fans, Jamie Joseph’s return to the Highlanders with the job of player retention amongst other responsibilities may have got in the way of that grand plan.

The Blues will face the Highlanders on Friday night in Melbourne, although they didn’t have to wait that long to see their opponents in person.

“They were on the same plane as us yesterday,” Cotter revealed. “There were some stern looks going up and down, getting your seats. I had Ethan de Groot next to me which I thought was quite good.

“I nearly had him sign for the Blues next year but I couldn’t quite get it over the line.”

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