As the All Blacks reflect on a challenging year while in isolation at their downtown Auckland hotel, there are a few Blues players who will feel more satisfied than most.
And of those – wing Caleb Clarke, loose forwards Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu, and prop Alex Hodgman – a quick display of gratitude to Blues coach Leon MacDonald may be in order during their many hours of free time because his careful handling of all four, but Clarke and Ioane in particular, allowed them to shine in the black jersey when earning their first test caps.
It was MacDonald who convinced Clarke to quickly come back to the Blues once the New Zealand sevens season was wrecked by the coronavirus, and the 21-year-old showed he would be a force in Super Rugby Aotearoa with a performance and try in his first game against the Hurricanes at Eden Park that foreshadowed what was to come several months later for the All Blacks against the Wallabies. And that was despite the fact he had trained specifically for the 15-player game for only three weeks before the Hurricanes match.
Clarke's mental and physical shifts while with the sevens team over summer were significant after he made his Blues debut as a 19-year-old three years ago. He also has a perfect role model in his dad, former Blues and All Blacks midfielder Eroni, who has instilled in his humble son a sense that he belongs at any level despite his youth.
But MacDonald should be given credit too because he has transformed the Blues from a team of perennial under-performers to a tight outfit that finished second behind the Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa, one that should be looking towards next season with a renewed sense of optimism given their achievements this year and recent performances of their men in the black jersey.
MacDonald's skills as a selector are what sets him apart and they have been a missing link at the Blues. They weren't a strength of predecessors Tana Umaga or John Kirwan. It takes intuition to know when a player is ready and where his or her best position is and not all good coaches are good selectors. It was, as has been widely established, a great strength of former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen's.
Ioane would have been deeply disappointed to have been on the outer at the start of the season. The man who averaged 79 minutes per 16 games for the Blues in 2018 and 78 minutes over the same number of games last year played just 12 minutes over the first five rounds this year.
He wasn't required to put his boots on for the Blues' first two matches (pre-Covid), and wasn't required for the two-match trip to South Africa.
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But Ioane needed careful handling after becoming close to burned out over the previous two years – last year Hansen made it plain in explaining Ioane's absence from the World Cup squad that the loose forward was playing "like a tired athlete" - and the form of Sotutu and Tom Robinson at the Blues meant they simply had to keep going. Fortunately for Ioane, his big break came when Sotutu and Robinson succumbed to injuries and he maintained the momentum all the way to a test debut against Australia in Brisbane.
MacDonald clearly had a plan for Ioane and he stuck with it, while, importantly, keeping a man with big All Black ambitions fully engaged and focused despite a lack of game time, and that balancing act can be difficult to achieve. The end result was two test caps, and Ioane was one of the All Blacks' best in the recent 38-0 victory over Argentina in Newcastle.
Sotutu showed he has the pace and power to belong at test level and that he is an ideal impact player from the reserves bench – something the All Blacks haven't had since Ardie Savea demanded a starting role – and Hodgman played the game of his life for the All Blacks against the Wallabies at Eden Park.
Clarke, Ioane, Sotutu and Hodgman are all going places in a rugby sense once they leave the confines of their hotel and MacDonald deserves acknowledgement because this year he gave them the perfect start.