It used to be said in rugby circles that when Auckland was strong, New Zealand was strong. These days New Zealand rugby is strong but its followers everywhere, waiting seemingly forever for the Blues to return to something like their former glory, are asking, "What's wrong with Auckland?"
The question has added weight because Auckland-bred players have a habit of popping up as emerging stars for Super Rugby teams in other regions, posing the more precise question, what is wrong with the recruitment and development of players in our largest city?
The former headmaster of Mt Albert Grammar School, Dale Burden, offered a disturbing answer in our pages on Tuesday. He was writing not only of rugby but football and netball, too. He blamed a failure of their Auckland organisations to form good relationships with schools, particularly the schools that regularly dominate national competitions in these sports, the likes of St Kentigern, Auckland Grammar, Westlake Boys and Sacred Heart, as well as his MAGS, "arguably the best sporting school in the country".
Claims such as that are in the best competitive spirit of sport in the rest of the country but it seems to be lacking at a higher level in Auckland. That impression is gained not just from the performance of its representative teams but also the crowds. With the notable exception of Warriors supporters, Auckland sports fans are quiet spectators, many perhaps with divided loyalties, having grown up in other parts of the country. Or it may just be relative size that makes Aucklanders less parochial.
Yet the atmosphere at Eden Park was much the same when the Blues were winning the Super Rugby title every year for its first few years, and earlier when the province had an iron grip on the Ranfurly Shield. Auckland rugby recruited the best from its clubs and schools in those days and the same players were the core of the All Blacks. These days Auckland is more like a graveyard for potential All Blacks. They seem to do better in any other franchise. The Blues cannot attract a player such as Damien McKenzie from the Chiefs even if it is his only immediate prospect of playing in his preferred position.
Some of the answers to the Auckland puzzle are provided in our sports pages today by Auckland Rugby's high performance manager, Ben Meyer. He says the Blues' problems should not be pinned on Auckland Rugby, which is identifying the best young talent in its region and developing it in an "academy" that is rated with Canterbury's as the best in the land. The Blues' problem, according to their high performance manager, Tony Hanks, is that every other franchise is looking for the cream of Auckland's crop too. And not just rugby. NRL and even AFL scouts are watching our best schools.
Auckland produces far more rugby talent than the Blues can employ and in some ways young players may be better off in places where living costs are lower and rugby is almost the only game in town. But these sound like excuses that should not outweigh the Blues' obvious advantage of being in the hometown of so many fine young players. As a nursery of New Zealand rugby Auckland remains strong, and New Zealand is strong. But the Blues are still the blues.