2022 Super Rugby Season Preview - Blues
Written by Max Sharp.
Only a few short years ago, the Auckland-based Blues were widely regarded as the laughing stock of New Zealand rugby. The outfit were finalists in the first three seasons of Super Rugby, winning the inaugural and sophomore seasons, 1996 and 1997, under Sir Graham Henry as the Head Coach.
With the exception of their shocking 2001 season, with the late former All Black, Frank Oliver as Head Coach, the team were consistently able to place in the top 10 of the competition for over a decade, they were even able to gain themselves another title in 2003, although they only appeared in the playoffs twice more from this point onwards (2007 and 2011), prior to the exit of South African teams from the competition; a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was after 2011 that the Blues truly hit rock bottom though. Pat Lam was not re-signed as the coach after placing 12th in 2012, while Sir John Kirwan resigned after they placed second-to-last at 14th in 2015; they had placed only 10th the previous two years. Under Tana Umaga, the team began rebuilding, they even could have made the 2017 playoffs if not for the much-despised conference system being introduced. Although this rebuild had the hiccup of 2018's 14th place, Leon MacDonald has been able to continue the rebuild since his reign began in 2019.
MacDonald managed to take the Blues all the way to a title in 2021, when they won the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition. Now, the Head Coach will look to build the team up even more, with Tom Robinson his likely candidate as the club's new captain. Fans will also be incredibly excited to see powerful winger, Caleb Clarke, back in action.
Clarke (centre) celebrates TJ Faiane's try in 2021. Photo: Max Sharp.
THREE KEY SIGNINGS FOR THE BLUES:
Ricky Riccitelli is set to finally be rewarded for his hard work around the park on both attack and defence, with his move to the Blues. The hooker, who began his career as a prop when representing Hawke's Bay, was able to showcase a strong amount of promise, with both Taranaki and the Hurricanes, reaching 71 caps for the Hurricanes from 2016-2021. But with the arrival of Asafo Aumua to the Wellington-based club in 2018, Riccitelli's career began to stagnate, only a year after being called into the All Blacks' training camp without being capped. With Kurt Eklund being hampered by injury in the 2021 NPC, Riccitelli could finally assert his dominance as a regular starter in Super Rugby, shortly after his 27th birthday.
While he will likely take the field off the bench on a regular basis, rather than become a regular starter for the Blues, Luke Romano will become an honourable mentor for the Blues' locking stocks. Half of the Blues' specialist locks, Sam Darry (21), Taine Plumtree (21), Cameron Suafoa (23), are in either their first or second season of Super Rugby, so having the soon-to-be 36-year-old Romano in the squad with them will be an excellent way of developing their games. Romano, off the bench, would provide some power in the scrum, a calm mind to help close out the final minutes of a game, while he remains an ideal lineout option at 1.99m tall and has bulked up to 120kg.
Everyone knows that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a huge signing for the Blues. At just 23 years old, he was named as the Warriors' captain in Australia's NRL, after spending 2012-15 with the Sydney Roosters. Tuivasa-Sheck went on to dominate rugby league as the Warriors' captain, he played 111 games for the club, scoring 30 tries in that time. Having played both codes of rugby at high school, he announced that he would convert codes in 2021 when he signed for Auckland in the NPC, although he had the misfortune of not being able to debut due to government restrictions around COVID-19. At just 1.82m and 96kg, he won't be World Rugby's bulkiest midfielder, but will add a his soft hands and dancing feet to the Blues' lineup, while an All Black debut will be inevitable if he can play well and avoid injury. Although he turns 29 in 2022, he is still young enough to play in two World Cups and reach 50 tests.
THREE KEY LOSSES FOR THE BLUES:
When Super Rugby transfers are fully unveiled, the biggest omission you can find is a club's captain from a previous season. In 2022, the Blues will be without both of their 2019 co-captains, Patrick Tuipulotu and Blake Gibson.
Tuipulotu, at 2m tall and 120kg, has been in blockbusting form for the All Blacks ever since a return from an injury he sustained in 2018. The big lock's game day mentality has evolved leaps and bounds since he made his test debut as a wide-eyed 21-year-old in 2014, against England. Although Tuipulotu has played 24 of his 41 tests off the bench as a substitute, he has demonstrated absolute loyalty to his country, having signed a long-term deal all the way to 2025, when he will be 32 years old. In his ambitious mission to reach a third World Cup for 2027, Tuipulotu has used the sabbatical clause in his contract to prolong his career, so he will spend the 2022 Super Rugby season playing for Toyota Verblitz in the Japanese League One. Although he will only be in Japan for a season-long deal, the Blues will be without an influential player for 2022, luckily he will return for 2023.
Blake Gibson's last act for the Blues was a rather appropriate one. Coming on as a substitute in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, in the 68th minute, Gibson's 5m run to the try line to score the game's winning points, was a great move for the man with number 20 on his back. Gibson, not the flashiest of players, is a workhorse who does his best to be at the right place, at the right time. After debuting for both Auckland and the Blues at 19 years old, he was, at 22 years old, called into the All Blacks' training squad in 2017 as injury cover for Sam Cane, although he is still awaiting a test debut. Although Gibson's leadership and turnover technique will be missed by the Blues, it might be the kick up the backside that his new team, the Hurricanes, need. If Gibson wants to wear a black jersey, his best bet was to head to the Hurricanes, rather than be stuck behind Dalton Papali'i; at 26 years old, 2022 will be his last shot at the black jersey.
Blake Gibson jogs at the Blues' warmup before facing his then-future team, the Hurricanes. Photo: Max Sharp.
The loss of Otere Black, however, is creating the biggest hole in the Blues' squad. Black could have easily played in New Zealand another few years and as Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett play better at fullback, an experienced 10 is becoming increasingly difficult to find in this nation. Ian Foster should be disgusted with the non-selection of Black in the last few seasons, we now find Otere Black heading to Japan with his partner and two children; that's the best decision he can make financially considering he didn't seem to be on Foster's radar, good on him for doing it. While Blues fans will be livid at the loss of Black, most will be excited to get Beauden Barrett back. Black has departed New Zealand for the Shining Arcs, who will gain pin-point passing, excellent communication, as well as a 10 with the kicking accuracy of a sniper rifle.
A POSSIBLE LINEUP FOR THE BLUES IN 2022:
FULL BLUES SQUAD FOR 2022:
*denotes newly-signed player.
Italics denote a test-capped player.
+ denotes a player ruled out for the season due to injury.
Hookers: Kurt Eklund, Ricky Riccitelli*, Soane Vikena
Props: Alex Hodgman, Nepo Laulala, James Lay+, Jordan Lay*, Marcel Renata, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Locks: Sam Darry, Josh Goodhue, Taine Plumtree, Luke Romano*, Cameron Suafoa*, James Tucker*
Loose Forwards: Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali'i, Tom Robinson, Anton Segner*, Hoskins Sotutu
Halfbacks: Finlay Christie, Taufa Funaki*, Sam Nock
First-Fives: Beauden Barrett*, Stephen Perofeta, Harry Plummer
Midfielders: Corey Evans*, Rieko Ioane, Tanielu Tele'a, Tamati Tua*, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck*
Outside Backs: Caleb Clarke, Bryce Heem, AJ Lam, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Zarn Sullivan, Mark Telea
Potential MVP: Dalton Papali'i
Potential Top Points Scorer: Zarn Sullivan
Potential Top Try-Scorer: Caleb Clarke
Dalton Papali'i, the possible MVP of 2022, stands behind a scrum with forwards coach, Tom Coventry, as the Blues warm up for a game in 2021. Photo: Max Sharp.
LIKELY FINISHING PLACE IN 2022:
3rd Place. Although the Blues have 14 players with test caps, they still remain a young team. In my opinion, they still seem to be looking for that perfect balance of experience in their squad, while it is close to perfection for the first-choice lineup. As a matter of fact, the Blues have only five players in their 30's, just two of which were born in the 1980's. In long competitions like Super Rugby Pacific, it isn't abnormal for teams to reach deep into their wider training squad. The Blues have the prop stocks to complete their mission, but if injuries hit other departments, the team could encounter trouble. The Blues' revival is still in it's crescendo towards a critical point; perhaps we will see them win year-after-year once Scott Robertson leaves the Crusaders.