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FEATURE Why Auckland blue is primed to take over from Canterbury red and black

Why Auckland blue is primed to take over from Canterbury red and black
1 month ago

It is a rivalry for the ages, even down to the two contrasting primary colours. New Zealand’s World Cup-winning Sir Graham Henry knows it more intimately than most. Christchurch and Auckland, South Island against North Island, red versus blue.

‘Ted’ was born in Christchurch and attended Christchurch Boys High School as a boy, but as a man he taught at Auckland Grammar School and became headmaster at Kelston’s in the Waitakere region of the same city.

More than 25 years ago, he told me about his first experience of rugby in its all its rude, violent health – the third Test at Lancaster Park in 1956, All Blacks versus Springboks: “I was only ten years old, and I was hoisted aboard someone’s shoulders – I don’t know who – to watch the game from the touchline. I can still remember the smell of the mud, and the furious sobs of effort from the forwards.”

Sir Graham Henry went on to coach over 140 Test matches and won the 2011 Rugby World Cup in charge of New Zealand (Photo by PA)

As a coach, he cut his teeth with the Auckland province from 1992 to 1995. Under his stewardship, the Blues won two of the first three championships in the inaugural Super 12 competition in 1996 and 1997, losing to the Canterbury Crusaders – who else? – the following year. His return as technical advisor and defence expert coincided with the Blues’ next triumph, beating the auld enemy five years later, in 2003.

Even as All Blacks head coach in the halcyon years from 2004 to 2011, Henry was pursued by harpies in red and black. After the 2007 World Cup debacle, his reappointment was challenged by the provincial accomplishments of Crusaders supremo Robbie Deans, who had won four Super Rugby titles since taking on the role at the turn of the millennium.

Ironically, two of the major props supporting Henry’s return for a second term were long-time Cantabrian assistant Steve Hansen and Crusaders skipper Richie McCaw. As the open-side icon detailed candidly in his autobiography:

“Robbie doesn’t appear to want to be challenged by his assistants and won’t allow the kind of full-on debate Ted encourages with Hansen and [Wayne] Smith…

“So, the question actually is: [an established coaching team of] Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen? Or Robbie Deans and unknown assistant coaches?

“When [NZRU chairman] Steve Tew phones me for an informal catch-up on this and that, I tell him I’m happy to work with either, but I do have a view on which option might be better for the All Blacks.”

But the pursuit of the harpies was relentless, and Deans promptly transformed into Henry’s fiercest trans-Tasman neighbour and adversary when he took the job as head coach of the Wallabies in 2008.

Since their success in the Henry years, the Blues have struggled to make an impact on Super Rugby, with the Crusaders winning eight more titles over the next two decades, compared to one solitary losing appearance in the 2022 final by the Blues. It has not been an equal contest, at least until now.

Vern Cotter has brought his vast experience to the Blues this year having coached in France and Scotland (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In 2024, the boot finally looks to be on the other foot. The Crusaders are on their uppers, scraping out two wins from their first 12 games, while the Blues are the proud table-toppers after dropping only one of their first dozen matches. The Blues have benefited from a new head coach with global reach and range in the shape of ex-Scotland boss Vern Cotter, and he has modelled a successful transition to the best possession game south of the rugby equator.

Cotter’s Blues are first in a host of key categories:

  • First in possession [55% per game] and active time-of-possession [19.8 minutes per game, compared to the SRP average of 17.4’].
  • First in tries scored [5.25 tries scored per game] and tries conceded [2.0 per game]
  • First in number of rucks built [110 per game, compared to the league average of 87], and in the ratio of lightning-quick ball produced from them [70%]
  • First in gain-line dominance on the carry and post-contact metres generated.

That is the model definition of a successful modern offence in every facet. One of the most important subsections within that attack is the activity of the Blues two regular wings: Caleb Clarke on the left, and Mark Telea on the right. Between them, the pair have carried an astronomical 246 times for over 2400m, with 30 clean breaks and 94 tackle breaks to boot.

Those are not the stats of wings who make all their breaks by just sticking to the sideline and waiting for their moment to run in the finishes. Clarke and Telea go looking for work on the interior of the field, they are addicted to those extra ‘hard yakka’ carries in between the two 15m lines.

It is no surprise to learn Clarke spent part of his pre-season at NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs, where big wings are expected to make runs into midfield as a bread-and-butter part of their job. As Clarke told Newshub:

“It would be a dream to play League. Hopefully, I still have time to do it.

“I reflect on the year I had, and it wasn’t one that I was fully happy with, so going into the next season [2024] with the Blues, I wanted to do something different.

“I wanted something that would find a bit of an edge. Being here in an environment like the Rabbitohs, a team I watch, a team I respect a lot – being able to rub shoulders with the boys, I felt like that would give me that edge -just to get another spark in.”

The comments of Blues skipper Dalton Papali’i on Clarke’s brother-in-arms Telea reflect the same point of difference on the opposite wing:

“He’s unbelievable, man – seriously crazy. He’s got really good balance, and for his size he’s bloody powerful.

“I’ve played him at NPC [level] and gone to tackle him, and he’s just given me a bullet fend. Its like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to think how to tackle this guy!’

“He’s been a problem, and he’s always going to be a problem.”

The Blues have at least five great YAC [yards-after-contact] merchants – two up front – Papali’i and number eight Hoskins Sotutu – and three behind – their two star wings plus centre Bryce Heem – and it makes them, among other things, the most effective pick-and-jam team in the competition by far.

For the Blues, introducing their big wings early in the phase count is an automatic metre-eater.



In both cases, 80% of the yardage gained is chewed off after first contact with a defender, with Clarke absorbing the entire Hurricanes midfield in the first clip despite receiving the ball from a standing start, and Telea defeating no fewer than four separate tackle attempts on a run straight ‘up the pipe’ in the second.

The second example came from arguably the most significant result of the SRP season so far, a 46-7 demolition of the Brumbies at a treacherous and storm-sodden Eden Park in round nine. Wing power gave the Blues a decisive advantage when it came to converting opportunities from close range.



Clarke again carries three men over the goal line with him in the first instance, while the second illustrates the Blues’ outstanding ability to double up in heavy traffic on two successive carries: although Telea slips while changing direction on the initial run, he has another ‘hard yakker’ to back up the carry in the form of Sotutu on second phase.

It is a recurrent theme of the Aucklanders’ attacking play.


On this occasion, it is Papali’i who makes hay even though the sun is certainly not shining and the pass is stopping him in his tracks, and that sets the scene for another tackle-bust by Clarke on the next play. The Blues will even double up their wings close to the nine at situations deep in the opposition 22, and that means double trouble for the defensive side.

The strength of the inside running off both wings also gives the Blues a better than average chance to run out from their own end. The 15-phase sequence from the opening kick-off receipt against the Brumbies set the tone, and the firm of Clarke and Telea had already carried seven times within the first eight minutes.

By full-time, collectively they had run 26 times for 129m with two clean breaks and 21 – yes 21 – tackle busts to their names. Twenty of those runs finished in ruck-sets, which shows you where most of the hard yakka was being done, in heavy traffic.



It is the work of Clarke and Sotutu inside which sets up Akira Ioane to play the role he enjoys most, as a wide runner in the far five-metre channel. The sequence finished with a Blues penalty 12 phases later, deep inside the Hurricanes 22. The Blues were wearing a jersey design borrowed from their successful era in the late 1990s – a portent of things to come in 2024?

Do the men from the north finally have what it takes to end the drought, and achieve their first Super Rugby title since 2003? The signs are they will be in the mix to the very end. They have a coach of vast international experience, who is firmly on-trend and making the most of the resources at his disposal. Their set-pieces are very sound and their ball-retention outstanding. One third of their starting XV could walk straight into Scott Robertson’s All Blacks later this year.

The Blues’ edge attackers are no longer waiting for the ball to come to them on the sideline, on a wing and a prayer. They are seeking it out for themselves, and earning their opportunities by grafting for them. If the blue flag is raised in 2024, there will be one knight of the realm raising a glass of red in the old schoolhouse in Waiheke Island in celebration. It has been a long wait.


Jon 32 days ago

Those two are certainly so good on their feet now that it makes it easier to retain ball, but I think we have to largely give credit to the administration for making it harder to break down steal. These examples have so often put the attacking team on the back foot with ball security, hope we keep seeing signs of improvement (well balance is a personal choice somewhat but I’m talking subjectively for the good of the game).

Mzilikazi 33 days ago

All eyes on TH Stadium this weekend, Nick. Some fascinating questions in the air ! The two best 9’s in the world for one., who comes out on top ? Who will Leinster start at 7 ? Can Leinster cope with another huge French pack, be on the right side of another 1/2 pts winning margin ?

Leinster must be cursing Australia. Get rid of Skelton, now have to face another colossus in Meafou !

Harry 33 days ago

Cheers, Nick!

The Blues’ application to SANZAAR for special dispensation to have Beauden Barrett join their squad for the playoffs is still under review. Really would be the finishing touch.

Andrew 33 days ago

Offence? No Americanisms please. The correct english sporting term is Attack.

David 33 days ago

Maybe now the Blues have a coach who has done a proper apprenticeship, not an ex AB who has done a couple of courses, the talent will shine. BOP has been a fine training ground for many successful coaches.

David 33 days ago

The number 1 change is the NI teams being better at retaining their quality players. Once the stream of NI players churning through the Academies hmm. selection recruitment machines in Crusader Country slowed down it was all over. Imagine the Canes with Barrett and Whitelock at lock instead of the struggle they have had?

Another point to note: the Canes and Blues are much better with new coaches. Where have the previous coaches gone - to the elite AB Razor Gang!

Spew_81 33 days ago

What the Blues really need is for their big money supporters to bring Mo’unga back to New Zealand - but in a Blues jersey. He would be dominant behind that pack.

john 33 days ago

That Telea is one slippery dude but it was funny seeing the young Tim Ryan leave him in no mans land.

Bret 34 days ago

Apparently Vern Cotter gave the players a swift check of their egos when he first came into the Blues environment and has instilled a French-like attitude towards the way that they play - no egos, put in the hard work, focus on the set pieces, and defend like mad-men. Looks like it’s working.

Tristan 34 days ago

Getting Vern Cotter was a major win for the Blues. I always felt that Tana and Leon were recruited for their names rather than established coaching track records.

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