OPINION: Liam Napier reviews the good, bad and ugly from the Blues' 2021 campaign.
There's no escaping the Blues' backward step in 2021.
Last year, when Covid-19 closed borders to force the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, the Blues continued their progress under Leon MacDonald to register five wins from seven games before their final-round showdown against the Crusaders was cancelled.
This year the Blues did not meet expectations; managing a 50 per cent record with four wins from eight games. Excuses aside, results pain a clear regression picture.
Margins are tight against Kiwi foes, sure, but finishing on the same number of points as the Chiefs is a copout.
The third season under any coach should be the time when game plans and cultures begin to flourish. MacDonald will reflect with disappointment that he did not deliver at least a finals appearance – the stated goal of this campaign.
Season rating - 4
After failing to reach the final, and winning two of their last six games, a record skewed by playing a second-string Chiefs team in the final regular season round, the Blues do not deserve a pass mark thus far this year.
Issues to resolve
Lack of leadership
He has only played half a season since shifting from the Hurricanes but the Blues desperately missed Beauden Barrett's calming influence this year. Patrick Tuipulotu's nagging neck/shoulder injury robbed the Blues of their skipper for much of the season and with James Parsons' retirement stripping another established leader, MacDonald turned to Tom Robinson's enthusiastic presence.
When Robinson was sidelined by concussion the Blues dug deeper into their ranks, installing 23-year-old Dalton Papalii and 24-year-old Rieko Ioane as co-captains for the 29-6 defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch. That loss is no slight on Papalii and Ioane's leadership capabilities. In many ways, they were thrust into leading the team before their time – purely out of necessity.
Robinson finished with two wins from two over the Hurricanes and Chiefs; his workrate alone inspiring others to follow. Leadership requires more than one figure, though. On this front the Blues lacked enough experienced voices to clinch winnable games. Barrett's attacking threat and, more importantly, guidance from first five-eighth next year will be invaluable in attempting to forge the Blues into the long-wished genuine contenders.
The Blues still don't know who their best halfback is. This season they regularly rotated Jonathan Ruru, Sam Nock and Finlay Christie without ever settling on a preference which makes building pivotal combinations difficult. When MacDonald lost faith in Otere Black for the must-win Crusaders match he turned to Harry Plummer to run the team from first-five. Stephen Perofeta would have been a better option to unlock the Blues attack, especially with rookie prospect Zarn Sullivan staking a claim for the fullback role in his debut performance the following week.
Million-dollar front row
Okay, liberties have been taken with that figure but the Blues went all out on recruiting a stable of four All Blacks props and Samoan international James Lay. Nepo Laulala moved from the Chiefs to the Blues this season to join Ofa Tuungafasi, Alex Hodgman and Karl Tu'inukuafe, while Lay returned home from Pat Lam's Bristol Bears. This stacked propping rotation should have given the Blues the most vaunted scrum in New Zealand. Yet they were oddly pushed around at times, and failed to provide the desired platform. Much more is expected.
Many of the frustrations surrounding the four defeats can be attributed to ill-discipline. Despite addressing this issue several times throughout the campaign, little progress was made. The Blues gave away far too many penalties at crucial times - and they conceded yellow and red cards which led to suspensions for starting hooker Kurt Eklund and Hodgman. Poor discipline is another problem that can probably be tied back to their leadership void, but individuals must accept responsibility too.
Best player: Dalton Papalii
Settling in the openside role suited Papalii, who benefitted from offseason recruit Dillon Hunt not featuring due to lingering concussion. No longer worrying about blindside duties allowed Papalii's physicality and workrate to thrive in the seven jersey. Papalii was prominent over the ball, on the carry, defensively and with his link work in the wide channels. With All Blacks captain Sam Cane sidelined, Papalii will surely enjoy much more than the 12 minutes he played off the bench during last year's abbreviated test season.
Biggest disappointment: Akira Ioane
Finished last season as the preferred All Blacks blindside after starting in the 38-0 revenge romp over the Pumas to end the year, only to slowly slide down the pecking order with the Blues. Ioane overcame mental challenges in 2020 to rediscover his best form, which makes his latest fall from favour all he more curious. With New Zealand's loose forwards stacked, he must now be in danger of missing out on the test team.
Best match: 39-17 round three win over the Highlanders at Eden Park
Clinical is not a term often uttered with this year's Blues. On this Sunday afternoon, however, they were exactly that. The Blues led 29-3 after embracing freedom and ambition. They never gave the Highlanders a chance. At that point, with two wins from two outings, their prospects seemed limitless. How the tide would turn.
Worst match: 35-29 round eight loss to the Highlanders in Dunedin
The Blues blew this match, and their hopes of making the final went with it. First Hoskins Sotutu copped a yellow card for sticking his boot out in the ruck. The Blues then went to sleep defensively just before halftime to concede a try. And after surging back from 13 points down, Hodgman's brain snap earned him a red card for his shoulder to the head tackle to seal his side's fate. The three-point loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton is another the Blues will rue. Two flops against the Crusaders also prove how far off the pace they were.
Super Rugby Transtasman outlook
Motivation to right this season's wrongs should be high. With the Brumbies at home and the Reds away, four wins from five matches should be the minimum expectation. Alongside the chance to make amends, Australian opposition also provide the platform to continue grooming young lock Sam Darry, Sullivan and yet-to-be sighted outside back Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.