The Blues finished second in this year's hastily-arranged, post-lockdown Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, and have recruited well in the offseason with some key additions, leaving Blues coach Leon MacDonald aiming high in 2021. Liam Napier reports.
Reaching the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa final next year is a bottom-line expectation for the Blues.
Leon MacDonald, in his third season at the helm, admits losing Beauden Barrett to Japan is a sizable hit in more ways than one to those aspirations. Otherwise, though, MacDonald bristles with enthusiasm as he sets out his stall for the 2021 season.
"He's a big loss because he was a big part of setting up our week in terms of the game plan – he would work really closely with myself and Dan Halangahu around the types of plays we wanted to use and getting the game understanding," MacDonald tells the Herald of Barrett, who has left for his one-season sabbatical in Japan, leaving the Blues with Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta and Harry Plummer to contest running the cutter.
"That's not to say the 10s we've got can't do that. They've probably learnt a lot from Beauden in the last 12 months and they can pick up that mantle but he will be a loss because he's world-class. When he was at 10 he was outstanding; when he was at fullback he controlled the game well and gave us good territory so he will be missed."
The Blues finished second in this year's hastily-arranged, post-lockdown Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign that did not embrace a final, six points behind the title-winning Crusaders with five wins, one draw, two losses.
Such a result was another gradual step for a franchise intent on proving they are again a force to be reckoned with. Yet glancing at the rival New Zealand teams reminds MacDonald of the minimal margin for error.
"We understand how quick that Aotearoa competition passes you by. One loss and you're nearly out, especially with teams like the Crusaders who don't lose many so you've got to be right on your toes every week.
"The Highlanders have pulled together an impressive squad; the Chiefs look strong. I can't see where the weak week is going to be. Starting well is going to be important; managing your squad is going to be important.
"If you're giving yourself a chance to play a final in this competition that's success because the competition is so tough – all five teams are outstanding.
"We were a penalty on the goal line away from coming fourth – that's how close it is, and the Chiefs were three penalty kicks away from coming second.
"You're going to need a little bit of luck, good management and your key players playing well. If you can give yourself a shot at the final we'd be thrilled with that opportunity."
In an impressive recruitment drive the Blues snaffled All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala from the Chiefs and openside flanker Dillon Hunt from the Highlanders to further stack positions already bursting with supreme depth.
With four All Blacks props - Alex Hodgman, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Laulala - and four national loose forwards in Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu and Hunt, competition will be fierce in these areas alone. Northland blindside Tom Robinson is also primed to impress after being cut down by a knee injury in peak form last season.
Outside headline the recruits MacDonald is particularly pleased to nab 20-year-old, 2.03 metre lock Sam Darry from Canterbury; talented outside back Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who scored eight tries in 10 games for Taranaki this season, and New Zealand under-20s loose forward Taine Plumtree, the son of All Blacks assistant coach John.
One area the Blues will be tested is fullback, where inexperience could be an issue.
"A little bit youthful, potentially, but we're confident in the ability," MacDonald said. "Zarn Sullivan was in fantastic form for Auckland at fullback – he's got a massive left boot, he can kick the ball as far as anybody I've seen. He's strong under the high ball and carries well.
"Jacob Kneepkens is an outstanding fullback as well. While he played wing for Taranaki he's got the skills for fullback, and we've got Stephen Perofeta who has played really well for us there in the past."
For those rookies there's no chance of easing their way into the next level, though.
"We'd normally have a couple of games we'd target in normal Super Rugby to start blooding our younger players. Where is that game in this competition?
"There's no obvious one. At some point there's going to be a few sink or swim moments for some players where they're going to get chucked in.
"The only thing we can do is prepare them the best we can by training at a really high intensity."
Coaching tenures tend to work in cycles. First year offers a grace period to assess necessary changes; second year progress should be evident and, by the third year, the fruits of labour should bloom.
With a largely settled roster and committed coaching staff, this is where MacDonald now finds himself – needing to deliver continued improvement in the form of a place in the final.
"Having continuity with the playing and coaching staff is critical. We didn't have to relearn a lot last year we were able to move our game forward. I feel that will be even more so this season. With time, the mindset around the way we play and train is becoming familiar with the players so third year in it's about trying to make it better.
"There was a real buzz around the city when we were playing some of our games it did remind me of the Super Rugby of old so hopefully that same excitement is there next season."
The only way to ensure crowds rock up to Eden Park in the same fashion they did post-lockdown this season is to win.
Achieving that every week against relentless Kiwi opposition is, however, no easy feat.