As the only Kiwi franchise not to have won Super Rugby outright in the last 8 seasons, the Blues will have been more disappointed than most when the 2020 iteration of the competition was halted after 7 rounds as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sitting with a 5-0-2 record at its premature conclusion, their average scoring margin of +8.3 points per game over their 7 fixtures would have comfortably been their best single-season mark since 2012; their highest figure over this 8-year period is the +2.7 points per game they achieved in 2017.
They have managed to win 51.5% of their interconference games during this period, with an average margin of +1.3 points per game, but both marks are the lowest among teams from New Zealand; the Highlanders are directly above them in both metrics, winning 60.6% of their games against international opponents with an average margin of +6.3.
The same two teams are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to Kiwi derbies between 2012 and 2019, but – inspected from this angle – a chasm opens between them: the Blues have only won 16.7% of their games against fellow Kiwis (average margin: -7.0 points per game), while the South Islanders have posted a respectable rate of 47.6% (average margin: -2.7).
While their 2020 record is a consequence of improved performance in both categories – they are unbeaten in 4 games against overseas teams, and have already claimed 1 win from 3 local derbies – their results to date against their countrymen advise caution: they are certainly an improved outfit relative to recent memory, but they have not yet shown enough to be validly considered true titled contenders in the 10-week Kiwi competition which begins on Saturday.
Over the last two World Cup cycles, their approach to the game has been clear. They have comfortably been the most possession-dominant Kiwi franchise, making 53.6% of all carries in their derby games, and have kicked the ball the least frequently; they do so once every 6.0 carries, with the 4th-ranked Hurricanes sitting at a figure of 5.4.
While this may be partly due to game-state effects – i.e. teams trailing on the scoreboard choosing to keep hold of the ball rather than kicking, ostensibly in order to have a better chance of scoring – it is worth noting that they have remained possession-dominant (making 54.7% of all carries, and kicking once every 5.8 carries) during their improved 2020 season.
Their success this year therefore largely seems to be attributable to better execution of the same gameplan, rather than a drastic change to their on-field strategy. There have been specific fixtures during which they have had more of a focus on kicking for ball progression – for instance, their tactic against the Waratahs of using high contestables from fly-half towards the openside wing in the middle of the field in order to keep “[their] forwards moving forward” – but in general finding a better balance in their game would likely have a positive impact on the Auckland franchise’s on-field outcomes.
While Otere Black’s reintroduction to the team in Round 4 has improved the Blues’ tactical kicking game, the arrival of Beauden Barrett should give take it up another level. The contestable strategy used against the Waratahs is one he is used to from his time at the Hurricanes under Chris Boyd, and head coach Leon MacDonald will be hoping giving the All Black responsibility as his team’s primary decision-maker will immediately improve their fortunes in this area:
Doing more ball progression with the boot would be a significant boost to an attack which has been heavily reliant on platforms inside the opposition 22m for scoring this year; 76% of their tries have come directly from phases beginning beyond this point of the field, the highest proportion of any Kiwi franchises.
Rieko Ioane – whether he has played on the wing or in the centre – has been an exceptional weapon for the team in this area: he scored 2 tries against the Chiefs from phases on this zone, assisted 2 against the Hurricanes and scored 2 more against the Lions in Round 7. While his assists in Wellington showed off his wide passing game, it is primarily his acceleration in congested spaces and strength to fight through contact that are assets close to the try-line.
His second try against the Chiefs in the first game of the season showed these qualities. After a set play from a scrum creates a one-on-one for Ioane – who starts the sequence as the blindside winger – with the Chiefs’ 13, he powers into the first collision and extends through multiple tackles to touch the ball down under the posts:
In Ioane and breakout star Hoskins Sotutu, the Blues will have two of the best attacking weapons in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
What has Hoskins Sotutu done well as the Blues’ starting number 8 so far this season?— The Chase (@thechaserugby) February 17, 2020
He’s been one of the competition’s best offloaders, and beaten defenders like a top ball carrier: pic.twitter.com/aPEo9Raq4o
In a similar fashion to his teammate in the outside backs, Sotutu combines footwork and acceleration in a powerful frame with handling ability and an awareness of how to attack space.
He is an excellent tip-on passer, and excels at using the pick-and-go as a weapon around the fringes when gaps in the defence exist; the example below shows how he marries all of these attributes. After completing a short pop to James Parsons on his outside shoulder, he follows up for an immediate pick-and-go before the ruck has formed and presents the ball cleanly to produce another phase of extremely quick ball:
Ioane follows up to score around the corner a phase later after a lovely miss pass from scrum-half Sam Nock, with the platform laid by Sotutu’s skill and awareness a key component of the try.
The loose forward’s play means that MacDonald’s decision to keep him in the 8 shirt is an easy one; this leaves Blake Gibson and Dalton Papalii fighting over the openside flanker berth, with the All Black also competing for a starting spot on the blindside with Tom Robinson and Akira Ioane:
However, their strongest pack may see Robinson move into the second row alongside captain Patrick Tuipulotu, with either the older Ioane brother or Papalii starting alongside Gibson – or allowing MacDonald to start both alongside Sotutu.
The respective strengths of All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi – powerful carrying and mobile defensive work – complement each other well in the front row, and Parsons is likely to slot between them at hooker.
In the halves, Sam Nock took the starting 9 spot for his own in the last few rounds of the postponed competition, and should partner Barrett. It will likely take some time to build cohesive combinations around their new star back, but his integration will be worth it in the long term.
Dan Carter’s signing as injury cover last week came with much fanfare, but given his and MacDonald’s “realistic” comments at his unveiling it would be surprising if he has a substantial on-field impact during his time with the franchise. While his presence around the club will undoubtedly be valuable, Otere Black’s form earlier this year should be enough for him to be Barrett’s primary back-up.
The presence of TJ Faiane at second five-eighth should catalyse the integration of Barrett into the starting team: he is a smart all-round footballer and a ‘glue’ player in the team’s backline, having played 86.3% of all minutes at 12 so far this year and provided the primary assist on 6 of their 25 tries. His partnership with Ioane in the midfield has been excellent, with the pair’s ability to play off each other going forward backed up by the markedly improved defensive work of the All Black in the 13 channel.
Having previously shown a tendency to jump out of the line when playing at centre and get beaten on his inside shoulder, he has clearly changed his approach to reads in this channel: he now appears to be focusing first on dealing with any short ‘unders’ runners coming into his channel, backing that his acceleration will allow him to catch up with play if the ball moves beyond him to the outside.
In the backfield, Stephen Perofeta has flourished at fullback as a secondary playmaker, but his long-term injury – which led to the signing of Carter as a replacement player – opens up a starting spot for Matt Duffie or Emoni Narawa.
Both players are also comfortable on the wing, and there is a wealth of talent in that position even with Rieko Ioane in the centre. The left wing spot is likely to be Mark Telea’s to lose; he has been a revelation in his rookie year, showing an unparalleled ability to beat defenders (doing so once every 1.3 carries, compared to an average rate of 2.8 among starting wingers in Super Rugby this year).
Joe Marchant is the incumbent on the right, but the Englishman will face competition from the returning Caleb Clarke (All Blacks 7s duty) and Tanielu Tele’a (injury). Marchant will be second-choice at 13 behind Ioane, while Tele’a also provides a more direct alternative to Faiane, Carter or Harry Plummer at 12.
The Blues begin their Super Rugby campaign at home to the Hurricanes on Sunday (kick-off: 4:35am UK time).