Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Blues' strategy has eye on future

Blues player Liaki Moli. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Blues player Liaki Moli. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The search for solutions to the Blues woes is exercising many rugby minds in the franchise.

Some look south down State Highway One and believe there can be magic bullets such as the Chiefs have loaded this season.

Others with a greater knowledge of the historical dramas within the Blues region predict more tortuous redemptive paths.

One area where the Blues are making advances is their high-performance scheme working with under-14 players through to the Blues development programme.

They have squeezed players out of the academy into work with the Blues; men like Liaki Moli, Gareth Anscombe, Angus Ta'avao and Steven Luatua.

That is just the tip of a flow of players that high-performance manager Nick Sheppard predicts will begin to emerge in the next 12 to 18 months.

Work in this area started in earnest in 2009 when Sheppard reviewed the pathways for would-be professional players' development.

His role was to look at talent identification, succession planning, player development and other areas to help the growth and development of young players.

"We had some gaps and holes in what we had been doing and wrapped the whole thing into an integrated model with Northland, North Harbour and Auckland," he said.

By the end of last year, the system was working strongly enough for Sheppard to produce a high-performance strategy plan to take the Blues through to the next World Cup.

His aim, and that of the franchise, is to increase the numbers and broaden the base of youngsters who can continue to pursue their aim of a professional rugby career.

Sheppard explained that the traditional selection model squeezed a small number of players out at the end.

Along the way there were many "choke points" for 13- to 17-year-olds throughout the Blues area and numbers fell away.

"When those players missed out on rep teams they started to ask whether they could be bothered.

"Selections were for the now, but not necessarily into the future," Sheppard said. "Lots of players got overlooked, but they might have been ones we wanted later on at the Blues."

So the Blues region was split into eight - two in Northland, two in Harbour and four in Auckland - with regional development coaches attached to each area.

"We figured there was no point in putting these guys into clubs if they were fighting over the scraps which came out of the seventh form," Sheppard said. "We thought the clubs would only be as strong as the numbers we could push through the 13 to 17 years age group.

"We got men on the ground to work alongside schools and also identify kids who we thought would succeed in the academy."

Sheppard and his men had to ask whether the schoolboys they saw were the future of local rugby and perhaps the All Blacks.

They did not necessarily want the dominant midfield back who bashed his way past smaller rivals or the whizzbang flanker of the day. They were looking for players with broad skill levels, strong training and work ethic principles. They used weekend development days to increase those skills and identify talent.

They began to track individuals' progress. Development officers worked alongside the school rugby coaches to support, mentor and help.

"Utopia would be that we end up with eight under-16 teams, one from each division in the franchise, playing in a Blues tournament as part of a celebration of rugby in the area," Sheppard said.

"We want to have kids in the game for longer, we want to build a wider path instead of narrowing the model."

The successful Blues under-18 side from 2010 and last year had pushed players into the New Zealand Secondary Schools side and the next phase for them would be an ITM Cup introduction.

"We will see some of those faces this year. They will not be the be-all and end-all, but they will be players people will sit back and say 'wow'.

"They are not yet ready for the Blues but they will be coming into that development group."

Those programmes had been run by Bryce Woodward and now Jeff Wilson, and about 25 players had been identified who had the potential to play Super rugby in the next few years.

Blokes like Sean Polwart, Ben Lam and Luatua were in the first wave of talent.

The ITM Cup was the perfect pitch for the next stage of their development.

"There is still a lag," said Sheppard.

"We are 18 months to two years away from having some graduate to the Blues."

In the meantime, players were saturated with as much rugby as they could handle. They were not pampered, they were pitched into club rugby to tangle with older players.

The academy youngsters were being encouraged to play for their clubs and provinces then the Blues - and perhaps beyond. If they felt content with their sporting path, it would be easier to retain them in the region.

"The wider the base grows and the more we become successful then the harder it will be to retain them," Sheppard acknowledged.

"That is the nature of the game, but we would rather have a wider base to choose from and be able to identify gold nuggets."

One of those may be Mangere College tighthead prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi, who has been with the New Zealand secondary schools team and the Blues academy and has made the NZ Colts and under-20 side.

He has signed on a 2014-15 Super 15 deal with the Blues. "We have watched him, seen his potential, got the feedback and believe he is the future. That is how the programme can work," Sheppard said.

He felt more comfortable making judgments about players' future when they were 19 rather than 16.

"Later is better to make an evaluation, but when you are donkey deep with NRL and ARL scouts - for example, 14-year-old twins have been signed up from Aorere College for the ARL - sometimes there's not much time,"said Sheppard.

- NZ Herald

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