WHEN will the misery end for Blues fans?
Much like the NSW league team of the same name, success has been strangely scarce for what used to be a powerhouse as the Blues — on the back of a golden era for Auckland’s NPC side — dominated the early years of Super Rugby under Graham Henry.
The Blues won their last Super Rugby title in 2003 and have not tasted finals football since 2011.
It is simply not good enough given the Blues’ rich catchment area which produces some of the finest rugby and league talent anywhere in the world.
Tana Umaga is entering his third season as Blues coach and knows it is time to deliver after finishing 11th and ninth overall in years one and two.
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And 2018 has got off to a pretty good start, with the Blues taking out the second edition of the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens last weekend.
Here’s our Super Rugby Spotlight on the Blues as we countdown to the season opener between the Stormers and the Jaguares on February 18 AEDT.
We will run our eye over all five New Zealand clubs and how they’re shaping up in 2018 before turning our attention to the four Australian franchises.
THE BLUES SQUAD
Props: Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Isaac Salmon, Mike Tamoaieta, Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Hookers: Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons
Locks: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou
Loose forwards: Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Dalton Papali’i, Glenn Preston, Kara Pryor, Murphy Taramai
Halfbacks: Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu (c), Jonathan Ruru
First five-eighths: Otere Black, Bryn Gatland, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Stephen Perofeta
Centres: TJ Faiane, Matt Johnson, George Moala, Tamati Tua, Sonny Bill Williams
Wingers: Caleb Clarke, Matt Duffie, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai
Fullbacks: Michael Collins, Jordan Trainor
THE OFF-SEASON INS AND OUTS
IN: Isaac Salmon (Tasman), Mike Tamoaieta (North Harbour), Leni Apisai (Hurricanes), Dalton Papali’i (Auckland), Glenn Preston (North Harbour), Jonathan Ruru (Otago), Otere Black (Hurricanes), Daniel Kirkpatrick (Albi), Matt Johnson (Southland), Tamati Tua (Northland), Caleb Clarke (Auckland)
OUT: Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), Leighton Price (Taranaki), Steven Luatua (Bristol), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Piers Francis (Northampton Saints), Ihaia West (Hurricanes), Rene Ranger (La Rochelle), Matt Vaega (North Harbour), Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki)
THE BEST XV
Melani Nanai, Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane, Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Jerome Kaino, Jimmy Tupou, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons, Pauliasi Manu
Umaga may well stick with the reliable Michael Collins as his fullback but we feel that the exciting Melani Nanai offers more upside at No 15.
There’s more than a touch of Israel Folau in Nanai’s long striding gait but, given his enormous potential, the now 24-year-old had a slightly underwhelming 2017 season.
No 10 is the perennial problem in Blues country and it was ironic that their last great five-eighth, Carlos Spencer, was involved in the breakthrough Brisbane Tens victory.
Piers Francis is back in England, Hurricanes recruit Otere Black has torn his ACL and the talented Stephen Perofeta has broken his hand — meaning Bryn Gatland (son of Wales coach Warren) — is the likely round one starter.
Impressive youngster Dalton Papali’i will push Jerome Kaino at blindside flanker while it is a toss-up between Jimmy Tupou and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti as the second lock.
Tighthead prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, now out of Charlie Faumuina’s considerable shadow, is set for a big season after some eye-catching performances in the latter stages of the All Blacks’ 2017 campaign.
THE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
In both seasons under Umaga the Blues have finished last in the ultra competitive New Zealand conference — but that doesn’t mean they’ve been a bad side.
The Blues actually have a 15 win, 13 loss record (with two draws) under the former All Blacks captain and he’s been able to assemble a relatively settled squad this year.
The backline is oozing with talent and in the precocious Rieko Ioane the Blues boast the world’s premier winger.
Beating their Kiwi rivals more regularly will be critical.
“It’s up to the players,” Duffie said.
“Tana works his butt off and I think we sold him short last year.
“It’s up to us to perform and win those key moments.
“He’s not out there with us, so it’s down to us to have the confidence and ability to win the pressure moments.”
THE REASONS FOR CONCERN
It’s not rocket science — the champion Super Rugby teams have the best No 10s.
Richie Mo’unga (2017), Beauden Barrett (2016), Lima Sopoaga (2015), Bernard Foley (2014)… and the list goes on.
The Blues have not struck gold since the Carlos Spencer glory days and it remains the major question mark heading into the 2018 campaign.
Stephen Perofeta, 20, was set to take the reins before breaking his hand and so it appears Bryn Gatland will get first crack as playmaker for the season opener against the Highlanders.
He’s a good kicker and a solid option but will it be enough to keep pace with Super Rugby’s true gamebreakers?
Charlie Faumina and Steven Luatua are also significant losses from the pack.
Round 1: Bye
Round 2: Highlanders (away)
Round 3: Chiefs (home)
Round 4: Lions (away)
Round 5: Stormers (away)
Round 6: Bye
Round 7: Sharks (home)
Round 8: Chiefs (away)
Round 9: Sunwolves (away)
Round 10: Highlanders (home)
Round 11: Jaguares (home)
Round 12: Waratahs (away)
Round 13: Hurricanes (home)
Round 14: Crusaders (home)
Round 15: Bye
Round 16: Rebels (home)
Round 17: Reds (home)
Round 18: Hurricanes (away)
Round 19: Crusaders (away)
To win the New Zealand conference: $8
To win the title: $13
Fourth in the New Zealand conference.
Four Kiwi teams have qualified for the last two playoffs and we’re tipping the Blues to finally break their finals drought.
They’re a dangerous team that no-one would want to play in a knockout contest although the lack of a champion No 10 means it’s hard to see them truly challenging for the title.
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