One apt analogy for the hapless Blues franchise could be that of a very frustrating puzzle.
While all of the pieces are presented in front of head coach Tana Umaga, he just can’t seem to make them fit.
The side – brimming with young but unproven talent – showed promise in the early stages of the competition, with narrow losses against the conference rival Highlanders and Chiefs to open the season before beating the Lions – back to back finalists – at Ellis Park. Unfortunately, that promise faded not long after as the Blues would drop their next four games and maintain their luckless bottom-dwelling.
After finishing 11th and ninth in his first two years at the helm, fans and pundits called for Umaga’s head. Instead, halfway through the 2018 campaign and with the team sitting on three wins from their first 11 games, he was given an extension until the end of the 2019 season.
They slumped to an abysmal 1-7 record at Eden Park, saving themselves from a dreaded 0-8 home ground whitewash with a 39-17 victory over the Queensland Reds in their final home game of the year.
Umaga’s win percentage with the Blues has fallen from 50% at the start of the year to 42%, and they currently sit 14th on the overall table, which is where they finished in John Kirwan’s third and final season in charge back in 2015.
If the former All Black captain can’t get his team trending back in the right direction, that 12-month extension may have been his last.
One of the main reasons for the Blues’ woes simply has to be Umaga’s inconsistency with player selection.
This season Ioane – arguably the world’s best winger – has played with four different numbers on the back of his jersey.
11 – four times, 12 – six times, 13 – three times, and 14 – once.
Umaga – through injury or otherwise – has used an astounding ten different midfield combinations this season, chopping and changing between seven different players.
The Blues’ most common midfield partnership has only been used three times, and the longest standing partnership at any point in the season has only lasted two weeks. It’s tough to imagine how any team can gel or create chemistry with such high levels of uncertainty heading into each week. Training must be an absolute nightmare.
For comparison, the Crusaders have used four different midfield combinations this season, the most common being a Jack Goodhue-Ryan Crotty pairing (eight times), with Tim Bateman covering injury for both Crotty and Goodhue, slotting in at either 12 or 13 in their respective absences. The only other combination was a Seta Tamanivalu-David Havili midfield with Goodhue, Crotty and Bateman not in the matchday 23.
Fortunately for the Blues, one has to think that things can only get better. The pieces are certainly there. While young, no one can deny the talent the Blues have at their disposal.
This brings us back to the puzzle analogy from earlier. How can Tana Umaga fit all of his pieces together?
The Ioane brothers, both reportedly locked in for the next few years – it remains to be seen how much money has been invested in the pair – are the cornerstones of the franchise, and now it’s all about their development and building the supporting cast.
The forward pack is anchored by All Blacks in key positions, with a talented back row shaping as a focal point moving forward.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi leads the front row – supported by aging veterans Pauliasi Manu and James Parsons, 25-year-old All Black lock Patrick Tuipulotu marshals the second row and right up until the end of his New Zealand career, Jerome Kaino has been a prominent figure in the back row.
Kaino’s departure leaves the door open for youngster Dalton Papalii – still just 20 years old – to stake his claim and join the gritty Blake Gibson and impressive Akira Ioane – who has been one of Super Rugby’s most dominant forces with ball in hand and is one of two Blues to have played in every game this season – in an exciting back row the Blues can build around, packed with potency and potential.
Looking to the backline, the Blues seem to be sticking with age-grade star Sam Nock as the long-term answer at halfback, and they may have finally found the No. 10 they have long been searching for in Stephen Perofeta.
Still just 21 years old and in his first season of Super Rugby, the Taranaki pivot has all the tools to be a great 10 and plenty of time left to develop. Perofeta is a confident ball carrier who is still learning how to make his teammates better, which will improve as he matures.
In terms of numbers, Perofeta shapes as an excellent player with ball in hand. He breaks the line once every 5.92 carries – good for first at his position – and ranks fourth among first five-eighths in run metres per game, fourth in tackle busts and is top ten in terms of runs per game.
For reference, Damian McKenzie manages a line break every 8.75 carries, while Beauden Barrett’s figure is at 9.63. Perofeta’s playmaking numbers are getting there too. His 1.4 line break assists per game are sixth among first five-eighths.
With Otere Black – impressive at the provincial level but still largely unproven in Super Rugby – returning next year and New Zealand U20 vice-captain Harry Plummer joining the ranks, the Blues have finally made significant strides towards shoring up the No. 10 jersey. As Sonny Bill Williams nears the end of his career and comes off-contract at the end of next year, we may even see the Blues opt for a two-headed dragon with a pair of playmakers in the 10 and 12 jerseys.
Umaga’s inability to settle on his midfield may be solved by the addition of new assistant coach Leon MacDonald, who helped orchestrate the Crusaders’ champion backline last season. It would seem that when healthy, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane are the ideal pairing in the middle – though this partnership has only been used twice this season. As previously mentioned, with Williams’ impending contract conclusion and eventual retirement – along with the exit of longtime midfield occupant George Moala – the Blues will soon have to lock down their midfield of the future.
With Rieko Ioane taking one spot, the second spot will likely come down to a battle between four young players: TJ Faiane, Orbyn Leger, Tamati Tua and Tanielu Tele’a – all of whom were NZ U20 representatives within the last three years, with Faiane the elder statesman at 22 years old.
A permanent midfield move for Ioane would also help declutter the back three, and allow promising 19-year-old winger Caleb Clarke to improve on the four appearances he has managed this season. Matt Duffie, Melani Nanai and Michael Collins add to an impressive outside back stable.
The Blues may still be a work in progress for a couple more seasons, but it’s without a doubt that with clear direction and increased experience the Auckland-based franchise has the foundation to build something special in the near future.
Hopefully, it won’t be long until the pieces finally fall into place.
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