With Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Hurricanes and Moana Pasifika squads for the 2024 Super Rugby season; all named, Kiwis can finally relax and properly sit down for their off-season barbecues, golf outings and beach trips!
For those restless ones who will still think "rugby, rugby, rugby" all summer long though, there's a lot to make out of what the coaches have gone for. We'll run through each team, alphabetically, to make sense of the transfers and selections... and of course, what these mean!
Today's article, will be on the Blues, who represent the NPC sides from Northland, Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau, in the Super Rugby league.
Fiery Blues captain, Dalton Papali'i (centre), will make his ambitions to lead the All Blacks clear in 2024. Photo: Max Sharp.
PJ Sheck (Prop) - from Highlanders
Jordan Lay (Prop) - upgraded to full contract from short-term deal
Angus Ta'avao (Prop) - from Chiefs
Josh Beehre (Lock) - from Auckland
Laghlan McWhannell (Lock) - from Chiefs
James Thompson (Lock) - from Counties Manukau
Lucas Cashmore (First-Five) - from Bay of Plenty
Meihana Grindlay (Midfielder) - from Taranaki
Kade Banks (Winger) - from North Harbour
Cole Forbes (Winger) - from Bay of Plenty
Vern Cotter (Head Coach) - from Fiji
Alex Hodgman (Prop) - to Reds, Australia
Nepo Laulala (Prop) - to Toulouse, France
James Lay (Prop) - to Moana Pasifika
Taine Plumtree (Lock) - to Scarlets, Wales
James Tucker (Lock) - to Hurricanes
Tom Robinson (Flanker) - to Toyota Verblitz, Japan
Tanielu Tele'a (Midfielder) - to Highlanders
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Midfielders) - to Warriors (League)
Beauden Barrett (Fullback) - to Toyota Verblitz, Japan
Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens (Fullback) - to Highlanders
Leon MacDonald (Head Coach) - to All Blacks Assistant Coach
What do the transfers tell us?
Well firstly, this puts a few whispers to rest. The first of these, was Caleb Tangitau's intentions to play 7s at the 2024 Olympic Games in France, a decision he's since gone against in order to play his sophomore Super Rugby season. The second of which, was some whispers out of France. The French sources claimed the Blues' signing of Edward Annandale, who is eligible for both Samoa and New Zealand, although he was an academy player with Clermont, taking the field for them 12 times.
Secondly, it appears the Blues' board of directors, very much appreciated the old-school approach by Joe Schmidt, that blended with a young team with the swagger to win with expansive rugby in 2022. Vern Cotter, having departed the Fijian lineup for personal reasons, is now home coaching in New Zealand. Having neared the semi-finals with Scotland at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he's certainly built a reputation as a man who will create fearsome forwards, who will give chances out wide.
Cotter's approach makes total sense with the new signings, Jordan Lay of Samoa will provide experience up front, as will Angus Ta'avao, a 22-time former All Black. PJ Sheck, Josh Beehre and James Thompson (also able to play 6) are all big bodies who will cause problems to opposing sides at the breakdown, while Laghlan McWhannell looks hungry for game time after his well-documented injury issues at the Chiefs.
Laghlan McWhannell (pictured for the Chiefs in 2022) stands at 1.98m and 114kg, so will add definite power to the scrum when selected. Photo: Max Sharp.
Considering the relative inexperience of Cashmore, Grindlay, Banks and Forbes, the signings of Ta'avao, Lay and McWhannell, make total sense. The signing of Forbes, who is able to cover both 14 and 15, having previously played for Glasgow in Scotland, means we are almost certain to see Harry Plummer take a firm grip of the 12 jersey; continuing to surprise with his strength, as Stephen Perofeta and Zarn Sullivan finally make highlight reels as a mouthwatering 10-15 axis.
With Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea still thankfully on our shores, it's completely logical to pick young outside backs, to think of the future. We may see a first-choice bench, featuring Cameron Suafoa as lock/loose forward cover due to the signing of two new specialist locks, with Thompson as a straight replica of Suafoa. For the sake of this attacking mindset, expect to see AJ Lam and Bryce Heem bring their club-level cohesion from Auckland, into Super Rugby again.
Another notable factor of the transfers, is what it tells us about the Blues' impactful team culture.
In the 2010s, it was a team with a well-documented high turnover of players. Malakai Fekitoa, Bryn Hall and Waisake Naholo, were three players who achieved success after leaving the club; while Ben Lam reached his potential seen by John Kirwan, too late. Frank Halai, Melani Nanai, Lolagi Visinia and Charles Piutau all left the team at some stage; though things did improve under Tana Umaga.
Gone are the days of Auckland being the land, of first-fives' All Blacks ambitions going bust. Gone are the days of Auckland, being the land of front-rowers getting away with laziness.
Eight of the leavers, including Leon MacDonald as the coach, are heading off after long-term success to further their families' financial well-being, while Plumtree, Tele'a and Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens are simply just young men in search of more game time, so they can make it big internationally. It's worked out for Plumtree for sure, as Wales have capped him twice!
A Possible First-Choice Lineup:
Dalton Papali'i (C)
Caleb Clarke, pictured with the All Blacks in Napier, will enter his seventh season with the Blues, after debuting for them aged 19 in 2018. Photo: Max Sharp.
This may not be the squad to offer us the "next generation" who get selected by Scott Robertson at a young age. The new signings probably aren't ready for test rugby yet, but what this squad has got, are a pack of proper hard men in their mid-20's, with a proper blood thirst for victory.
Sam Darry, Cameron Suafoa and Zarn Sullivan, are all seasoned professionals who are at the perfect age to debut for the All Blacks. Jason Ryan will again be able to prove, through Darry and Suafoa, that bullying the opposition up front, in the breakdown, is a learned behaviour, rather than something that is coached. Sullivan on the other hand, will provide Leon MacDonald, the mentor figure who nurtured him into the fearsome utility he is today, with a go-to option off the bench if selected.
Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Akira Ioane, Stephen Perofeta and Hoskins Sotutu, are by no means spent forces either, so could certainly put their hands up for extra game time, having not necessarily had the 2023 they wanted; Tu'ungafasi did not play at the knockout stages of the World Cup. The redemption arcs for those five remain available, while Caleb Clarke is still young enough to expand his skillset. Mark Tele'a and Rieko Ioane on the other hand, are set to break more records. Tele'a, having beaten 40 defenders in the 2023 Rugby World Cup, became just the second male player to do so in one tournament, with Jonah Lomu beating more than 40 defenders in both 1999 and 1995. Ioane is himself, eyeing up the chance to be the first All Black to score 50 test tries.
Mark Tele'a broke Jonah Lomu's record for most defenders beaten in a mens' World Cup final, beating 9 defenders against South Africa in the 2023 edition. Photo: Max Sharp.
This may not be a squad who can be put together to win a Super Rugby title, but this is for sure, a team who will make up a decent chunk of the All Blacks' class of '24. What's for certain, is that this team will make several highlight reels along the way.
Potential End-of-Season Ladder Position: 3rd Place
Potential MVP: Zarn Sullivan
Potential Top Try-Scorer: Mark Tele'a
Potential Top Points-Scorer: Stephen Perofeta