The first in a five part series of writers from the various New Zealand Super Rugby franchises giving their season ending exit interviews. Naturally The Blues are up first.
By Ryan Nixon
The 2019 Super Rugby playoffs are here and once again, for the eighth season in a row, the Blues are not participants. Leon MacDonald gave them a new coach, Patrick Tuipulotu gave them a new captain, Ma’a Nonu gave them a star signing, while Otere Black and Harry Plummer gave them new options in the 10 jersey. There would be nothing new about the Blues season though. They finished 13th, with only the Reds and Sunwolves below them. The same issues reared their ugly head yet again, although they did manage to end their losing streak to New Zealand sides with a win over the Highlanders at Eden Park. Some might say “baby steps.”
It was a season that started with such promise. They flogged the Chiefs in Kaikohe in their first preseason hitout, before pipping the Hurricanes in Mangatainoka. Then, in week one of the season proper, against the Crusaders at Eden Park, Plummer stood over a 79th minute penalty attempt from 45m out. Kick it and the Blues take the scalp of the defending champions, ending their losing streak to New Zealand sides and serving notice to the competition that 2019 will be different. Instead, it went wide.
That loss was fitting given the way the Blues season eventually unfolded. They often found themselves in games, but simply couldn’t find ways to win. Two weeks after the Crusaders loss they blew a huge chance in Argentina, opting for an attacking scrum down four points late in the game, and failing to win the ball. A four game winning streak followed, putting them in a playoff spot and giving fans hope that maybe they’d turned a corner as they traveled to Hamilton. Instead, they got beaten on the road in New Zealand yet again, despite Damian McKenzie limping off injured early in the second half. It was another game they were in position to win late, but a simple drop from Alex Hodgman extinguished their hopes.
After that loss, the Blues won just one more game. Four more losses came by eight points or less. Plummer blew another potential win against the Bulls, missing a kick after the siren, and forcing the Blues to settle for a draw. They were competitive in practically every game outside of a horrid week two loss to the Sharks, but would wind up with just five wins, a draw and ten losses. Simply put, the Blues still don’t know how to win close games.
Few and far between. Rieko Ioane was understandably their most dangerous back, but was often underutilised. Tanielu Tele’a emerged as a talent on the other wing, despite missing games as a result of both suspension and injury. Of the forwards, Tom Robinson announced himself with some outstanding early season form, though faded late in the season. Scott Scrafton missed most of the early part of the season, but finished strongly after finally getting fit.
The 8-9-10 axis. Akira Ioane was outstanding at his best, but anonymous at his worst. The service from halfback was poor all season, with none of Jonathan Ruru, Augustine Pulu or Sam Nock able to take ownership of the position. Harry Plummer and Otere Black both showed glimpses of promise in the ten jersey, but wayward goalkicking and inconsistency plagued both of them. The Blues seemed to lack leadership in key moments, which probably wasn’t helped by a lack of experience in key roles, or the fact that their All Blacks are not renowned leaders. Addressing those areas would certainly help them in close games, when their option taking was poor.
WHERE TO IN 2020?
The seemingly annual rumour of Beauden Barrett being chased has popped up again, which is understandable from the Blues’ perspective as they need leadership and experience at halfback and first-five. Plummer and Black should be better for having this season under their belt, but halfback looks an even bigger concern. Perhaps luring someone like Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi might be on the cards, given his second fiddle role at the Chiefs. Having Sonny-Bill Williams fit would help add thrust in midfield, but they’ll be in need of a fullback replacement for Melani Nanai. The pack needs quality behind their starting tight five, while having Blake Gibson fit for a whole season would help their loose forward rotation.
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