Every day this week we will preview a different Kiwi Super Rugby team ahead of the competition kick-off this weekend. Today, the Blues.
The down low:
The upward trend is positive for the Blues. Progression through the first two years of Leon MacDonald's stewardship is tangible, offering hope this could be the year they attain their first title in 18 years.
Beauden Barrett's departure for Japan robs the Blues of serious strike power - yet they never lack attacking threats. Caleb Clarke and Hoskins Sotutu present a handful alone; both one year wiser after their respective promotions to the All Blacks.
Patrick Tuipulotu established his leadership presence last year and around him the Blues have added significant depth by recruiting All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala and Highlanders openside Dillon Hunt, one of New Zealand's hardest-working defenders.
Last Super Rugby Aotearoa season the Blues lost two games – away to the Hurricanes and Crusaders. They finished that campaign second to the Crusaders, with their final-round match scrapped due to a Covid-19 outbreak.
This year, there is no reason the Blues can't kick on and claim the title. That will certainly be their aspiration.
While Barrett cannot be replaced, Otere Black and Stephen Perofeta, the latter from fullback, formed a slick dual playmaking combination that guided the Blues to four unbeaten matches to start 2020, and they may again be paired to start this season.
The Blues pack, overseen by Tom Coventry, must be considered among New Zealand's best. Boasting four All Blacks props - Alex Hodgman, Laulala, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi – and Samoan international James Lay should ensure an impeccable platform is consistently laid, while the loose forwards overflow with dynamic athletes.
In Tasman's Scottish redhead Finlay Christie the Blues have a classy halfback on the rise, one with speed to the breakdown and superb support lines.
Midfield depth is, perhaps, a tad light and inexperience in the back-three division, particularly the influential fullback role outside Perofeta, could be an area opposition elect to target.
MacDonald will, however, back his fullback experience to help promote rookie prospects Zarn Sullivan and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, dual talents offering serious promise.
Eden Park must be a fortress for the Blues. If they can continue their improving away record, and avoid any further Covid outbreaks in Auckland, they should reach the inaugural SRA final and provide plenty of highlight reel moments along the way.
Defining factor: Game management
Much rests on Otere Black's shoulders. These days an experienced, trusted figure, little flusters Black. He doesn't pose the same attacking threat as Barrett or Perofeta who are both at their best challenging the line, but Black offers a calming influence capable of creating for those around him. He's also proved his value icing match-winning kicks on several occasions. How MacDonald opts to rotate Black, Perofeta and Auckland first-five Harry Plummer, also comfortable one spot out, could make or break the campaign.
Positional battle: Loose forwards
Ridiculous depth. With Blake Gibson, Dillon Hunt, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu and new recruit Taine Plumtree, son of All Blacks forwards coach John, on their books, the Blues' bases are loaded. Sotutu at No 8, Ioane on the blindside, the role he seized for the All Blacks last year, and Papalii at openside appeals as the Blues starting trio.
Yet MacDonald can easily mix and match any combination. Prior to his unfortunate knee injury last year Robinson was the glue that held the Blues pack together. Robinson's relentless work ethic – his hunger to make repeat efforts and bust a gut to make the next, desperate play, is a trait every coach desires.
While his best position is blindside, Robinson's height and the Blues' stacked loose forward stocks could necessitate him frequently featuring at lock. Hunt, the one-test All Black, is another superb addition that boosts the Blues' defensive resilience. The luxury of such supreme depth gives MacDonald options to start a different, fresh trio each week and demand no drop in form.
Under-the-radar prospect: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens
A highly sought-after talent, with the Blues fighting off the Chiefs and Hurricanes to secure the 19-year-old's signature. Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens scored eight tries in his debut provincial season on the wing for Taranaki – two in the Ranfurly Shield victory over Canterbury in Christchurch. He previously spent six months with the Parramatta Eels and had Covid not gripped the globe last year, he would have made his New Zealand sevens debut too. Super Rugby debuts tend to arrive earlier for outside backs than tight forwards. This Naki teen's maiden Blues appearance will be keenly awaited, as will the chance to witness Zarn Sullivan make the step up.
Ins and outs:
A successful offseason recruitment drive for the Blues netted several talented prospects and established pros, improving depth across the board. Barrett is the big loss, though he'll at least return next season.
In: Dillon Hunt (Highlanders), Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (Taranaki), Sam Darry (Canterbury), Taine Plumtree (Wellington), Soane Vikena (Auckland), AJ Lam (Auckland), Zarn Sullivan (Auckland), James Lay (Bristol), Nepo Laulala (Chiefs)
Out: James Parsons (retirement), Matt Duffie (Japan), Beauden Barrett (Japan), Tony Lamborn (released), Sam Caird (released), Aaron Carroll (released), James Tucker (released), Sione Mafileo (Chiefs), Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
Prediction: Runners up
The loss of Barrett's game-breaking talent, and the problematic fullback void, are the only aspects holding back a prediction the Blues will go one better than last year. Their forward pack offers reason to believe, but the backline's comparative lack of experience screams caution. Without an experienced voice from the backfield, composure under pressure is the biggest concern for the Blues backline. On paper at least they should, however, push the Crusaders all the way.