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RUGBYPASS+ It's now or never for Beauden Barrett's Blues

It's now or never for Beauden Barrett's Blues
2 weeks ago

The stars have aligned for the Blues and if they’re to ever break their Super Rugby title duck, 2023 has to be the year.

A Super Rugby Trans-Tasman ‘championship’ aside, the Blues have gone almost two decades without claiming any major silverware. Unsurprisingly, that’s a major frustration for supporters in New Zealand’s largest city.

The likes of Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Charlie Faumuina, Anthony Boric, Isaia Toeava, John Afoa, Luke McAlister and Jerome Kaino racked up plenty of appearances for both the Blues and the All Blacks and while they may have tasted success with the latter, the moments of celebration were few and far between at Super Rugby level.

Some of the Blues’ top performers enjoyed little success with the Auckland franchise. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Ever since Carlos Spencer’s departure following the 2005 season, the Blues have lacked a world-class first five-eighth – or, at least, they did until they managed to recruit Beauden Barrett a few years back.

It wasn’t until last season, however, that Barrett was actually on deck for an entire Super Rugby campaign with his new side.

With Barrett at the helm, the Blues put together a strong regular-season campaign, dropping a solitary match to the Hurricanes. En route to the finals, they also managed to tip up the Crusaders in Christchurch – a rare feat – and entered the knockout stages of the competition with home advantage on their side.

It all fell apart in the grand final, of course, with the Crusaders getting revenge for their earlier defeat and claiming a well-deserved 21-7 victory at Eden Park.

Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan both look capable of stepping into the playmaker role upon Barrett’s departure, but neither player possesses the experience or poise of the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year at this stage of their careers.

Barrett remains on the books for 2023 but there’s a very real possibility that the 31-year-old will head offshore following the upcoming Rugby World Cup. Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan both look capable of stepping into the playmaker role upon Barrett’s departure, but neither player possesses the experience or poise of the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year at this stage of their careers.

There’s also the possibility that current head coach Leon MacDonald could part ways with the franchise.

MacDonald joined the Blues in 2019 and has overseen a strong turn in fortunes for the three-time Super 12 champions. His 57 per cent win rate makes him the fifth most successful coach in the side’s 27-year history, and the most successful since David Nucifora’s three-year tenure that ended in 2008. That success hasn’t gone unnoticed, with MacDonald asked to coach the All Blacks XV in their inaugural campaign last year. He was also a rumoured member of a Scott Robertson-led coaching unit that was supposedly set to take over from All Blacks head honcho Ian Foster in 2022 had the NZ national side not bounced back from a horror start to their campaign.

And while New Zealand Rugby might be tabling an offer in the national set-up for MacDonald, foreign unions will also be circling, with the likes of Japan, Scotland, Australia, Wales and even the USA all potentially on the lookout for new head coaches after the World Cup. One way or another, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where the 45-year-old is still in charge of the Blues at the beginning of next year.

That means the Blues could be without both Barrett and MacDonald in 2023 – two of the key figures in their rebirth.

Both Beauden Barrett and Leon MacDonald could part ways with the Blues at the end of the season. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Thankfully, they’ll still have Patrick Tuipulotu on the books.

The former Blues captain took a Super Rugby sabbatical in 2022, spending the season playing for Toyota Verblitz in Japan’s League One competition. Tuipulotu has committed to NZR until 2025, however, and will now set about helping the franchise go one better than they did in 2022.

The biggest issue for the Blues in last year’s final was their lineout, with the Crusaders’ steals hitting double figures late in the game. “They got up well; it was like they had our playbook there,” MacDonald said after the match. “They were reading our play and causing a lot of trouble there. We tried variations, and were just unable to get quality ball to launch off.

“Ten missed lineouts is hard to live off. It’s as simple as that.”

With the key triumvirate of MacDonald, Barrett and Tuipulotu all on the books this year, it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for the Blues to break their title duck.

While hooker Kurt Eklund and starting locks Josh Goodhue and Tom Robinson are all talented players, they were well and truly outplayed and arguably outsmarted by the likes of Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Cullen Grace.

It’s not a wild claim to suggest that with 43-Test All Black Tuipulotu calling the shots in the second row for the Blues at Eden Park, the final could have gone a very different way.

With the key triumvirate of MacDonald, Barrett and Tuipulotu all on the books this year, it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for the Blues to break their title duck.

Throughout the squad they’re littered with experienced international representatives.

Karl Tu’inukuafe has headed to France but in Alex Hodgman, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Lauala, the Blues have three of the most formidable props in the country. The losses of Josh Goodhue and Luke Romano in the second row have been offset by the return of Tuipulotu while Sam Darry and James Tucker will provide some grizzle.

Patrick Tuipulotu’s return to the Blues will be welcomed. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The loose forwards are getting stronger by the year, with Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i and Hoskins Sotutu backed up by Tom Robinson, Adrian Choat and Anton Segner.

Finlay Christie may not have had the strongest season in the black jersey last year but he was the form halfback in Super Rugby Pacific, and his combination with Barrett will undoubtedly go up a few more levels with more time in the trenches together.

Throw in dangerous backs like Caleb Clarke, Mark Telea, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, AJ Lam, Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan, and it’s clear that the Blues are stacked with classy individuals, from No 1 through to No 15.

With a number of key figures set to depart at the end of the season, 2023 is the year where the Blues are best placed to finally end the Crusaders’ unbeaten run of Super Rugby titles.

Last year’s final was a massive disappointment for the Super Rugby minor premiers after such a successful regular season and the Aucklanders will have to go one better in 2023 before Beauden Barrett’s time in blue comes to an end.

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