Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 15 teams participating. Next up, the Blues.
The Auckland-based franchise dominated the early years of Super Rugby, winning the first two versions of the competition in 1996 and ‘97 but, with the exception of their third title in 2003, disappointment has merely followed disappointment.
Not even the appointment of All Blacks’ legend Tana Umaga has arrested the slide with the Blues only finishing ninth last season. Although it was their best campaign since 2011, where they lost to Reds in the semi-finals, their supporters expect far more from an outfit that has struggled to recapture those former glories.
Last year: Umaga’s men are New Zealand’s consistent underperformers and 2017 was no different. Stacked with talent, with a backline to rival the rest of the New Zealand conference and a back-row most would envy, their big players have simply failed to perform for the Blues.
Of course, it comes with caveat that, had they been in the Australian division, they would have been in the play-offs, but it is not an excuse for a side that must show a significant improvement in 2018. Some fans have seen signs of development under their head coach and they have certainly not plunged the depths like the team did under John Kirwan, but there were still plenty of teething issues last year.
They failed to beat any of their countrymen throughout the competition, losing a number of tight matches to their conference rivals, and simply struggled for consistency. Umaga’s charges did impressively manage a victory over the British and Irish Lions, a result which gave their season a semblance of respectability among the achievements of their intra-country rivals, but their fans demand more, particularly following their embarrassing loss to the Sunwolves.
This year: If the Blues can reverse a couple of those narrow scorelines, while maintaining their dominance over the Australian and South African teams, then there is hope, but it is not going to be easy.
While Charlie Faumuina’s departure to Toulouse is a loss, the Aucklanders are pretty strong in most areas and should expect much better seasons from their established stars. Sonny Bill Williams was poor for his franchise last season and the centre will need to play near his best if they are to overcome a difficult fixture list.
The Eden Park-based outfit open with derbies against the Highlanders and Chiefs before heading to South Africa where they will face two of their stronger teams in the Lions – finalists for the last two years – and the Stormers. If they come out of those games with a positive record then it does ease slightly in the middle, but double-headers with the Crusaders and Hurricanes in the last six games is a brutal way to end the campaign.
Key players: At the age of just 20, Rieko Ioane has become a crucial part of both the Blues and All Blacks, and the wing will need to continue his form in 2018. They will also hope for big seasons from Sonny Bill Williamsand the soon-to-be departing George Moala in the backline, while Otere Black will need a big season. Ihaia West never really produced the required level for the Auckland side – that try against the Lions apart – and Black has been brought in to at least provide some control from the fly-half position.
Up front, there will be pressure on Ofa Tu’ungafasi now that Faumuina has left for France. The prop is excellent in the loose but his 6ft 5 frame possibly counts against him in the tight. Nevertheless, Umaga will need Tu’ungafasi to improve in the set-piece if the talented backs are to receive quality ball.
Players to watch: As Rieko Ioane displayed, age is merely a number and there are several youngsters that could follow the All Blacks wing’s pathway. In particular, Caleb Clarke looks another special talent off the New Zealand back three production line after dominating the 2017 Junior World Championship. He may only be 18, even younger than provincial team-mate Ioane when he made his breakthrough, but it would not be a surprise should Clarke be a Blues regular this season.
Dalton Papali’i and Tamati Tua are two others who were part of that hugely impressive U20 side and they will no doubt come into contention albeit, in Papali’i’s case, the flanker is in a hugely competitive area. The Aucklanders do not lack for ability in the back-row and they will be wanting a much-improved campaign from Akira Ioane this time around. Like Clarke, he was a star at age-grade level and was easily the best player in the 2015 U20 championship, but has so far failed to progress like most expected.
Prospects: Looking at the ability of the squad and the positivity surrounding some of the work Umaga is doing, you would expect an improvement, but their fixture list appears especially difficult. A decent start is therefore crucial if they are to build some confidence going into the slightly easier middle part of the 2018 campaign, but the Highlanders (away), the Chiefs and the Lions (away) are not necessarily the teams you would want to face in your opening three matches. However, should they get through those encounters unscathed then they could make a surge into the play-offs.
Players in: Isaac Salmon (Tasman), Mike Tamoaieta, Glenn Preston (both North Harbour), Leni Apisai, Otere Black (both Hurricanes), Dalton Papali’i (Auckland), Jonathan Ruru (Otago), Daniel Kirkpatrick (Albi), Matty Johnson (Southland), Tamati Tua (Northland), Caleb Clarke (Auckland)
Players out: Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Brandon Nansen, Matt Vaega (both North Harbour), Leighton Price, Declan O’Donnell (both Taranaki), Steven Luatua (Bristol), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Piers Francis (Northampton Saints), Ihaia West (Hurricanes), Rene Ranger (La Rochelle)
Round One: Bye
Friday, February 23 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, March 2 v Chiefs (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, March 10 v Lions (Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, March 17 v Stormers (DHL Newlands, Cape Town)
Round Six: Bye
Saturday, March 31 v Sharks (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 7 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton)
Saturday, April 14 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Friday, April 20 v Highlanders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 28 v Jaguares (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, May 5 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, May 11 v Hurricanes (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, May 19 v Crusaders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Round 15: Bye
Saturday, June 2 v Rebels (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, June 29 v Reds (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, July 7 v Hurricanes (To be confirmed)
Saturday, July 14 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)