In their first game of the new all-local competition, Super Rugby Aotearoa, the long-struggling Blues take on their star new recruit’s former team. Can they keep up the cautiously promising return to form the pre-Covid Super Rugby season hinted at?
After a 12-week lockdown-enforced break, normal media service resumed for the Blues rugby team last week.
By the side of their training pitch in the middle of the Alexandra Park trotting track in the Auckland suburb of Epsom on Tuesday, coach Leon MacDonald and outside back Matt Duffie stood on the other side of a white plastic table to – and the required two metres from – a surprisingly small group of reporters. The pair spoke about their team’s preparations and hopes for the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, which starts on Saturday, June 13, a tournament replacing the unloved competition featuring teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan that was halted by the coronavirus on March 15.
The Blues’ first game in the new and hopefully improved competition is now less than a fortnight away: against the Hurricanes at Eden Park on June 14, an occasion that will feature All Black Beauden Barrett’s first match for the franchise against his former team, for which he played 125 times. It is a clash that would probably have attracted the Blues’ biggest crowd of the year. Instead, it will be played in a near-empty stadium due to the restrictions on gatherings that we have all become so used to.
After breaking a seven-year drought on March 7 when they beat the Hurricanes in Wellington, the Blues hope that their own version of the “new normal” includes beating New Zealand teams regularly away from home. They’re going to get a bit of practice over the course of a 10-week competition that will be unrelenting in its ferocity.
“It’s going to be pretty close to test-like intensity,” MacDonald said. “If you you have aspirations to become an All Black, this is a bit of a taste of what it’s going to be like.”
Two apartment blocks that have been seemingly under construction for the entirety of this century formed the backdrop to the friendly 11-minute interrogation of MacDonald and Duffie this week: a lengthy building project overlooking a lengthy rebuilding project.
But there are enough signs, as MacDonald enters the halfway point of his second year with the Blues, that progress is being made – the win over the Hurricanes proved that, plus two wins in South Africa in as many weeks, as did the team’s standing in fourth place in the competition when it was halted. Solid foundations appear to be under way at last.
The Blues, who have won three Super Rugby titles (second-equal behind the Crusaders’ 10), last won a championship in 2003 and last made the Super Rugby playoffs in 2011.
Going by the evidence seen during the Blues’ five victories from seven matches so far in 2020, not only does MacDonald have a plan and the communication skills to share that effectively with his playing group, he also has a depth in his squad that hasn’t been there in years, plus of course the imminent return of Barrett, the current All Blacks fullback who is unlikely to wear any other number for the Blues except his favoured 10.
The 29-year-old Barrett, who won World Rugby’s player of the year in 2016 and 2017, is one of three players preparing for highly anticipated returns in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Crusaders and All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock is another – he was supposed to be playing in Japan but for the pandemic – as is Nehe Milner-Skudder, a former All Blacks wing who has cut short a stint in Europe for the same reason and who is about to make his debut for the Highlanders.
There will be interest in whether Milner-Skudder has retained the evasion skills that made him as difficult to catch as a mouse in a furniture store, and Whitelock, who has played 117 tests, will bring an enormous amount of experience back to an already ominous-looking three-time defending champion Crusaders.
But the spotlight will be brightest on Barrett, the jet-setting Instagram star, one of the best players in the world and the ideal man to fill what for the Blues has been a problem position since Carlos Spencer left in 2005.
Like most first-fives, Barrett is a living and breathing headline in waiting, and in typical fashion dominated the admittedly limited recent sports news cycle when securing a personal and franchise-best time in a recent “bronco” fitness test. Barrett took a long break after the World Cup last year but clearly hasn’t spent much of it on his couch.
“He’s a student of the game and really diligent around his homework,” MacDonald said. “He’s thorough, he likes to know his role in particular and the roles of those around him. His preparation is meticulous… he’s just a real pro.”
Afterwards, as MacDonald, a polite and thoughtful figure who nonetheless appears right at home with the requirement to remain physically distanced from members of the media, walked back across the field to begin training, he was asked on camera by the Blues’ social media representative about how he coped with the so-called journalists’ question “bingo” – in other words, queries that he knew were coming.
“Well, you’re always going to get a banker – probably Beaudy,” he replied.
Barrett certainly is that and his true value will be revealed over the next few months. Given the advances New Zealand has made in containing the virus, and the relative positions of other sports around the globe, it’s probably fair to say the whole of the rugby world will be watching.
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