The Blues have signed an historic memorandum of understanding with their three provincial unions to overhaul the region's much-maligned talent identification and set an ambitious goal to establish the world's premier development system.
Long criticised for letting talented players and coaches slip through their grasp, the Blues hope the new agreement with Northland, North Harbour and Auckland will allow them to capture the best emerging prospects and alter perceptions about a franchise that, while improving, has failed to deliver a title for 18 years.
The catalyst for the new integrated talent identification system was the independent review completed by high performance consultants Eddie Kohlhase, Ken Lynch and Paul McAlpine in late 2019.
Changes include the Blues, rather than the provincial unions, first approaching talent. Academies will be improved, with set standards implemented across the three unions. Contracting will also be aligned to ensure specific provincial talent is locked in early by the Blues.
The final part of the equation is a coaching scholarship which will welcome an emerging mentor into the Blues each year, with a plan for that person to return to work with a provincial union to continue their progression.
From a playing perspective, Auckland outside backs Zarn Sullivan and AJ Lam joining the Blues this season reflects the projected pathway from all three unions.
"We believe this can be a game changer for rugby in our region," Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said.
"Auckland and the Blues region is a funny place in that selection and recruitment is always a point of opinion and with the way the franchise model is constructed, we're not going to be able to keep everybody.
"But the ones we do decide to keep we want to be sure we've got a greater probability of keeping them, and if they stay here, they have the world's best development experience.
"This gets dedicated resource to ensure we have paid people to shape the pathway for a high quality level of development over and above anything else you get anywhere else in New Zealand.
"We're starting to see the fruits of recent work coming through and there's some kids starting to sit up and say 'the best place for us to go is the Blues region'. We want to continue that trend."
The memorandum of understanding signals something of a sea change in the relationship between the Blues and their provincial partners. Not so long ago, during the fraught Andy Dalton-Murray Bolton era, Auckland were barred from training at the Blues' Alexandra Park base, such was the fractured state of affairs.
"Covid in a lot of ways brought us closer together because we were sharing similar issues and seeing the frailties in our system," Hore said. "There's always going to be tenson - it's having a level of maturity to work through things.
"The depth of conversation has been outstanding because people have had to be really honest. In this environment that can be challenging but the fact we got to this point is a sign we tried to find solutions to those problems.
"We've got to get aligned on the attributes we're wanting to keep, and the attributes we're actually happy to let go. There's only 38 spots in the Blues."
To oversee talent identification the Blues have appointed Andrew Hewetson as the head of performance development.
Hewetson brings established relationships, having worked with Counties Manukau, Auckland age-grade and academy teams, and as an assistant at St Kentigern College and Auckland Grammar. For the past five years he was a development consultant at Sport New Zealand.
"We believe this plan will provide the framework for a systematic, region-wide approach to understanding what it will take to attract, recruit and develop the right players in the right way in an effective development environment," Hore said.
"We know it will take an extraordinary amount of hard work, goodwill and a willingness to work collaboratively. Equally we are massively excited at the opportunity and challenge ahead of us."
Auckland Rugby Union chief executive Jarrod Bear said he sees the benefits in working more collaboratively with the Blues and his view was shared by North Harbour chairman, Gerard Van Tilborg, and Northland Rugby Union chief executive Cameron Bell.
"Northland has long been known throughout Aotearoa as a prolific nursery for producing stunning rugby talent and this collaboration with the Blues will ensure we harness and nurture our very best to have the opportunity to play Super Rugby and beyond," Bell said. "When Northland rugby is at its strongest, the Blues will be too and this is a very positive step forward."