Otere Black was hailed as a game-changing signing for the Blues when he put pen to paper in 2017. The region had long been without a smooth operator in the 10 jersey and Black was one of the most promising playmakers to come out of the age-grade scene in years. Unfortunately, before Black was able to even step out on the field in a Blues jersey, injury struck.

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“I think it might have been the last round or second to last round of the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup,” Black told RugbyPass. “It was the end of season – only a couple of games before a good long break.

“As soon as I did it, I knew it was pretty serious. A couple of days later they diagnosed it and it was the ACL.”

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Black knew he would be out of the game for some time but given he’d suffered the injury in October, he was hopeful that he’d be able to play some part in the upcoming Blues season, which was due to run from February to July.

“I got my head around the injury and I sat down with a few people around timings and that but they just said it wouldn’t happen.

“It was still a long way away from the first round of Super Rugby – three or four months, but they just said, ‘We don’t think you’ll be back at all next season.’ I’d waited all this time just to get up [to Auckland] and play some consistent footie, and then all of a sudden it was taken away from me, just like that. That part of it was hard.”

Black, then 22, had spent two seasons learning from Beauden Barrett at the Blues but 2018 was supposed to be the year he took the reins of a Super Rugby side. Instead, he found himself on the sidelines, watching as his side crumbled to a 14th-place finish.

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It was mentally tough, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Manawatu product.

“I got to know the Blues really well,” Black said. “Sitting out and not being able to play, you get to see how the boys prepare and what we do weekly before games. I got a good idea of what it’s like being injured and sitting behind the scenes – watching how things work, seeing how it goes in the game.

“I grew as a person, more so than as a player, around the adversity that you can face. That was the toughest thing I had to face in terms of my career so far and looking back at it, it set me up for what’s been happening in the last wee while and it’s put me in pretty good stead, mentally.”

Otere Black made his return to the playing field in September of 2018 – 11 months after his injury – and managed five appearances for Manawatu, then was named in the Maori All Blacks squad for their tour to USA, Brazil and Chile.

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It was a huge relief for Black, finally getting out on the park. Although the pivot was nervous in his first outings back from injury, it didn’t compare to what it was like rehabbing his knee in the early stages.

“I think the whole journey is tough, but I found the first part especially so,” said Black. “I was so used to walking or running around and being at training with my mates all the time, but you just can’t do those things. You try – you try and push it, and things like that, but you can’t do anything. I found that first bit very hard.

“Once you get back on your feet and get back out on the field, that seems to go pretty quickly because then you’re out on the grass more, and then you start throwing rugby balls around and kicking and passing, and then you know you’re almost there.

“It took me a while to get the confidence back – I’d say it took a lot longer than a year to get fully confident around everything that I have to do on the field. It’s good being in the gym and doing rehab, but it just can’t replicate what you do on the field.

“I just needed to get out on the field and get minutes. Whether I played good or bad, I wasn’t really afraid, because it was just about getting minutes under the belt and ticking a few boxes that I didn’t do the week before. It was a tough journey, but I enjoyed it on the way. It had its ups and downs, but that’s part of the game for us.”

Come February 2019, Black was finally ready to play his first game for the Blues in front of a home crowd against the prior year’s champion Crusaders. As far as Super Rugby debuts go, they don’t come any more special than that. The visitors won the match 24-22, but that didn’t dampen the event too much for the returning playmaker.

“It was a long time coming,” admitted Black. “I was just so happy to get out on the field because I’d missed out on a whole 12 months of playing with the boys.

“Everyone – family and friends – were all there because they knew how much it meant, not just for me, but for everyone. They’d seen the struggle that I had to go through when I went home. Being out so long, it was awesome. We didn’t get the result, but it was just a good achievement for me coming back from my knee.

Black managed 15 appearances for the Blues in his debut season with the team, battling for minutes with Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer. Unfortunately for the now-25-year-old, 2020 started on somewhat of a sour note, with a rib injury ruling the sophomore out for the Blues’ first three matches of the season.

“The very first preseason against the Chiefs, I popped my cartilage in the first five minutes,” Black said. “I didn’t play any of the regular season games until we were in South Africa. It was not the ideal start.”

In Otere Black’s absence, the Blues managed just one win – against the Waratahs – while the Chiefs and Crusaders travelled up to Auckland and dealt to the home side.

“We had a tough start. It was tough for me, sort of sitting there and watching the boys go through those first couple of New Zealand games. I always find it quite hard watching but I’m sort of used to it now – that’s what happens when you get a whole year off.”

Black was finally fit for the Blues’ tour to South Africa – and that’s when things really started to turn around for the team. First up, the tourists had to tackle the Bulls in Pretoria.

“It was a funny old week, really,” Blacks said, “I was only just coming right that week and just managed to get on the plane, and it was quite a good game to come back into.

“It wasn’t as fast as most games are. It was pissing down with rain over there. It was a nice soft field. it wasn’t overly quick, but it was relatively physical. It was a good game to come back into it after being out for a while.”

Black kicked a penalty in the final act of the game to hand the Blues a 23-21 win over the home side. There was little time for celebration, however, as Black’s team were then tasked with facing up against one of the competition’s two unbeaten sides. It was a completely different set of conditions to what Black had experienced against the Bulls.

“The following week, we played the Stormers. It was a beautiful afternoon in Cape Town and in the backend of that game, I just started cramping up,” said Black. “I lasted about 70-odd minutes and I couldn’t carry on.”

The Blues also won that match – the third in their now six-match winning streak. Coincidentally, Black has started at first five in all but one of those games, despite the presence of Beauden Barrett, who has now followed Black north from the Hurricanes.

You could forgive Otere Black for being frustrated at the fact that he now has an extra 10 to compete with – a player who he originally moved away from in the quest for more playing time, but he’s taken it completely in his stride.

“It wasn’t really a surprise for me,” said Black. “I know Beaudie pretty well. I know his partner and her whole family is from up here so it didn’t surprise me in that aspect.

“Me and Beaudie are really good friends and he obviously taught me a lot while I was down at Wellington. I got to play alongside him and trained alongside him. He’s just a really nice guy. I really enjoyed working with him at Wellington.

“Him being here just makes the competition even better. It’s beneficial for our team to have players like him come to the club and wanting to come here. It’s exciting, not just for us players, but for the fans as well.

“The 10 that are here, we just want to help each other. We’re always pushing each other at training, but also helping each other with what we all need in terms of getting ready for the game, whether you’re playing that week or not.”

Black has consistently been one of the Blues’ best players on the park in 2020 – which is an impressive feat, given that the whole squad are putting out some career-best performances this year.

Barrett’s arrival since the coronavirus-enforced break has seen the All Black utility slip seamlessly into the fullback role while Black has continued to excel at first receiver. While there were calls from some corners that Barrett would immediately usurp his former prodigy, forcing Black into spending more time on the sidelines, Barrett’s presence seems to have only further enhanced Black’s performances.

The Blues have put their best foot forward in their two Super Rugby Aotearoa games to date and there’s a very real chance that the Auckland side could win their first title in 16 years – though there’s still plenty of water to pass under the bridge yet. Their round 4 clash with the Crusaders will certainly give fans in New Zealand a better picture over who’s the favourite to take out the competition.

Regardless of the end result, however, Otere Black will be confident that after stringing week after week of quality performances together, he’s now proving that’s more than capable of handling the demands of running the ship at Super Rugby level – which can only bode well for his future.

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