Rugby: Trio's departure a blow to Blues' future hopes

By Gregor Paul

All Black Ma'a Nonu has been in brilliant form for the Blues this season and it's hard to see where they'll find a replacement of his calibre. Photo / Getty Images
All Black Ma'a Nonu has been in brilliant form for the Blues this season and it's hard to see where they'll find a replacement of his calibre. Photo / Getty Images

If the Blues have taken a step forward in 2014, they are about to take at least two back with Ma'a Nonu, Graham Henry and Mick Byrne all likely to be involved for the last time this week.

It's tempting on the evidence of the Blues' inspiring victory against the Force and a good but losing performance in Christchurch to believe they are at the beginning of something.
Watch: Rugby Highlights: Crusaders 21 Blues 13
Their pack - a mix of world-class veterans and rising stars - hammered around the fringes to great effect in Christchurch. That endless pick-and-go has potential to blossom into a deadly art and Bryn Hall and Ihaia West will have learned more than they actually delivered.

The Blues, in the key decision-making roles especially, are predominantly a young side and the 21-13 loss to the Crusaders when everything was on the line will be an invaluable experience.

"I think we came right later on in the season but we couldn't finish it off tonight," said Blues coach John Kirwan. "At this level it is about [having] a bit more intelligence. A bit better kicking plan. I thought at times we could have kicked it a wee bit better and put them under pressure.

"Games earlier in the season that we should have won and got some extra points would have helped but we have got to learn how to play these tight ones and take the opportunities when they are there."

In their quest to find tangible evidence of improvement his year, the Blues can also point to their season-long excellence at Eden Park. At home, they were cohesive and expansive - beating all who came.

They can look at the growing influence of Charlie Faumuina as a ball carrier; the emergence of the impressive Patrick Tuipulotu; the massively successful integration of Jerome Kaino; the hopeful rejuvenation of Steven Luatua and the maturing captaincy of Luke Braid as reasons for optimism next year.

But the pending loss of Nonu - who is believed to be almost certainly returning to the Hurricanes - and the definite loss of Byrne and Henry from the coaching team, has the potential to be the pulled thread that sees the whole kit and caboodle unravel.

Nonu has been superb for the Blues - his ability to get them going forward pretty much irreplaceable. Midfielders who can take the gainline the way he does aren't in abundance. Malakai Fekitoa would be welcomed back, but has another year on his contract with the Highlanders.

And while Nonu's likely departure says more about his values than it does the Blues', the failure to attract Beauden Barrett or any other big name five-eighth is indicative of the uncertainty the playing fraternity still feels about shifting to Auckland.

Some of the reluctance sits with the city itself: views about Auckland in the provinces are strongly formed.

But the bigger reason players with choice don't have the Blues top of their list is they can't be sure about the coaching they will receive.

- NZ Herald

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