Super Rugby Aotearoa

How did the Blues become so good and what can SA teams learn?

Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues wins a lineout ball during the Round 2 Super Rugby Aotearoa match against the Chiefs in Hamilton on 20 June 2020.
Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues wins a lineout ball during the Round 2 Super Rugby Aotearoa match against the Chiefs in Hamilton on 20 June 2020.
Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
  • The Blues go into the clash against the Crusaders without defeat in seven straight matches in 2020 and three straight in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
  • Their transformation started with managers, such as Tana Umaga, checking their egos at the door and applying themselves to the team cause.
  • The Blues went through nine straight years without making a Super Rugby playoff and finishing as New Zealand’s wooden spoonists most of them.
  • The former rock stars of NZ rugby have cut out their Auckland partying culture and replaced it with steely mental edge.

Super Rugby Aotearoa confirmed what most people suspected earlier this year before Covid-19 struck: the Blues are back.

After more than a decade being the laughing stock of the five New Zealand franchises, watching the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes usurp them as the main challengers to Crusaders dominance, the men from Auckland are back to claim their rightful place as title contenders.

After three straight wins since Super Rugby Aotearoa started, the Blues face the Crusaders on Saturday (09:05 SA time) in a clash of two unbeaten sides of the New Zealand derbies competition.

Regardless of the result, their seven-match winning stretch, which goes back to this year's curtailed Super Rugby season, has left everyone wondering, how did the Blues become so good?

The answer is complex, but this simplified version has lessons for all South African franchises to keep:

Egos checked at the door

When Tana Umaga, the celebrated 74-Test All Black, stepped down as head coach in 2018 to allow his assistant Leon MacDonald to take over in 2019, he said this:

"It was tough on the ego. But this wasn't about me."

Umaga stood back and realised that his way wasn’t working but he believed enough in the project that he was willing to stay with the team and help the players grow, even if he was no longer giving the instructions but taking them.

It is one of the most incredible selfless acts you’ll witness in rugby this century. The image of Umaga and his All Black pantheon contemporary Dan Carter sitting side-by-side as water carriers on the touchline of the clash against the Hurricanes endeared both to the worldwide rugby loving public.

Besides Beauden Barrett (83 Tests), none of the Blues players come close to the All Black caps Umaga and Carter accumulated. That they are seen carrying water showed that you’re never too big to do even the small jobs for the team.

Home brewed talent retention

In the last decade, talents such as Akira and Rieko Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Otere Black and Dalton Papalii would have taken their talents to the other four, better run, franchises as soon as they came into All Black reckoning.

Unless you were a nailed-to-the-wall All Blacks such as Ma’a Nonu, you probably didn’t see yourself getting a sure place in black as a Blues player.

When they broke through, it seemed only a matter of time before Akira and Rieko Ioane, especially the latter, would move to Wellington or Hamilton, where they’d join fellow young stars making their names in black.

That they stayed was a victory. From there, they built around stoic stalwarts like captain Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi and James Parsons.

When Papalii, Sotutu (undoubtedly the find of 2020), Black and Caleb Clarke broke through, they found that there’s value in the Blues badge again and it’s something worth playing for.

No more parties in Auckland

The drinking culture in New Zealand has sunk many promising careers, most notably Zac Guildford, and has gotten many of their stars in trouble, even here, in South Africa.

As recently as last year, two New Zealand players George Bridge and Richie Mo’unga got into trouble for two separate drink-related incidents in Pretoria and Cape Town.

The Blues weren’t immune. In Auckland, if you followed reports and word from Down Under, rugby players carried themselves like rock stars.

Auckland is the country’s most cosmopolitan city and boasts a world of temptations, unlike the countryside where the Crusaders might seclude themselves and focus on their farming and their rugby.

It was therefore not a surprise that the Blues went nine of the last 10 years without making the Super Rugby playoffs, finishing as low as 14th in the 15-team competition in 2015 and 2018.

They’ve been wooden spoonist in New Zealand for most of those years but all that has changed in 2020’s Super Rugby Aotearoa. 

Added mental edge

The Blues have clearly worked on their mental strength.

We saw it when they came to Loftus and stunned the Bulls before going to Cape Town and embarrassing a previously unbeaten Stormers team at Newlands.

Their game travelled across continents, which wasn’t the case in the last decade.

In the past, their close encounters, such as round three's against the Highlanders, which they won 27-24, would have ended in Blues defeat.

It goes without saying, rugby is 80% mental and 20% physical and it’s been proven time and again. South African teams, who have not tasted Super Rugby success since the Bulls beat the Stormers at Orlando Stadium in 2010, could invest in the mental development of their players.

It isn’t only about getting the biggest players to lumber their bodies against others' on the field but to get players to think about the challenge they face in a contest and how they could apply themselves and problem solve as they do it.

Teams:

Crusaders

15 David Havili, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Mitchell Dunshea, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 Joe Moody

Substitutes: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fetuli Paea, 23 Will Jordan

Blues

15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Harry Plummer, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman

Substitutes: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Karl Tu'inukuafe, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Aaron Carroll, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 TJ Faiane, 23 Matt Duffie