New zealand Rugby super rugby

DEPTH REQUIRED UP NORTH- A Potential 2021 Blues Squad

With the completion of Super Rugby Aotearoa and the Mitre 10 Cup fast approaching, I thought it would be good to have a look into just what each franchise needs. This is the fifth part of a five-part series, today looking at the Blues.

THE LOWDOWN

As is well known, the 2020 season was the best for the Blues in a very long time. The Northerners did really well before lockdown, while after they picked up a tidy 2nd place in Super Rugby Aotearoa, finishing with 5-2 record, with their final match at home to the Crusaders being cancelled due to a surge in Coronavirus cases in Auckland. Regardless, how will they shape up next year? Upfront, Ofa Tu’ungafasi was the form prop of the competition, and Sione Mafileo will also join him in sticking around at tighthead next season. Marcel Renata is off-contract, but it would seem best for all parties if he stuck around. At loosehead, Karl Tu’inukuafe looks like he may be getting back to his best, while Alex Hodgman was strong. Ezekiel Lindemuth is the other loosehead on the books, and I have someone in mind who could well end up playing in Auckland in 2021. Rounding out the front row, James Parsons is signed on but is surely coming to the end, while Kurt Eklund will look to continue to build on a very strong season. The Blues still need a long term option, so for that reason, Ray Niua is unlikely to get a new deal. At lock, they are well sorted, with Patrick Tuipolotu leading the contingent, backed up by utility Aaron Carroll, the more experienced Josh Goodhue and Gerry Cowley-Tuioti, while young Sam Darry will be there but it unlikely to see much game time. James Tucker is unlikely to be seen up north again. Loose Forward is another area they are strong, with Dalton Papalii and Blake Gibson being really strong openside options, while Akira Ioane is playing some career-best rugby on the blindside. Tom Robinson will be back from injury and will no doubt want to make an impact, while Tony Lamborn and the most impressive Blues loosie Hoskins Sotutu will look to build on strong seasons. Halfback has not been a strong point for the Blues for a while now, but Finlay Christie seems to have solved this issue and it would not be at all a surprise to see him in as the All Blacks no. 3. Sam Nock should be retained as a backup, while the much-maligned Jonathan Ruru may well be set free. This season, the Blues had five first fives on the books, and with Beauden Barrett heading for a one-year Japanese adventure, and Stephen Perofeta potentially viewed more as a fullback option, all of a sudden the Blues have more to ponder. Otere Black will be the starting first five, while 21-year-old Jack Heighton should get retained. That leaves the curious case of Harry Plummer. Plummer has not kicked on and the likes of the Hurricanes and the Chiefs may look to offer him a new start. However, Leon McDonald seems to be a fan of his and he hails from Auckland, so I would be surprised if he left. Dan Carter will not be seen in blue next year- surely. The midfield is strong but lacks depth. TJ Faiane and Rieko Ioane are a good starting pair, but with Tanielu Tele’a as the only backup they need to do some work. Tele’a is also off-contract but it would be surprising if he did not stay. On the outsides, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea will look to build on strong debut seasons, while Emoni Narawa showed he can mix it in limited opportunities. Matt Duffie will depart while keeping around Jordan Hyland feels pointless, but if there is nobody outstanding then he is not the worst option. The final player is Jared Page, primarily a fullback he is not signed for next year and at 27 he is yet to have made his way at this level. 

With this squad search, I have a lot more up to date information than the other ones I have written. Contracts have been announced, while a surge in COVID surely means we are in for Super Rugby Aoteatoa round two next year. Finally, on these signings, Blues CEO was quoted by Stuff as saying, “There will be a couple I think who will be a bit of a surprise.” Who are these surprises?

WHAT THEY NEED

All things considered, I am going to look at one loosehead prop, a hooker, a halfback, a midfielder and two outside backs for the Blues.

THE SEARCH

Loosehead prop requires little deliberation. The Blues could either decide to keep Ezekiel Lindemuth or potentially and the option I am touting, take a look at everybody’s second favourite rugby player, Rob Cobb. Cobb is an exciting prospect as well as having a great name and listed at 1.89m and 117kg he carries a big frame, something the Blues have liked this year. Despite being from Auckland, he played for Waikato last year and then got a sole appearance for the Chiefs this year. He would struggle for game time for the Blues, and with the Chiefs propping situation very much up in the air, they will face opposition. Still, if they want him I think they could and will get him

Option: Rob Cobb

Hooker is another one that seems reasonably clear cut. Kianu Kereru-Symes is the best available young hooker so they will surely move for him. Currently the understudy to Ash Dixon at Hawkes-Bay he has been touted for big things after captaining the NZ U20 team last year. He would be initially raw but as Codie Taylor and Dane Coles age out, Kereru-Symes and Aumua look the best rakes around. Kereru-Symes can also play prop which shows his size. There are certainly worse players to learn under than Ash Dixon at the moment especially. He would be a very shrewd addition if they could get him and they are unlikely to face much serious competition, with most other sides have plenty of hookers locked in. 

Option: Kianu-Kereru-Symes

Halfback is a lot less clear-cut. With Finlay Christie the likely number one and Sam Nock poised to play backup, they will still likely look to secure another scrumhalf. The Highlanders, the Crusaders, the Hurricanes and the Chiefs either have or seemingly have all three halfbacks locked in for 2021. The Chiefs are the only one up in the air with Brad Weber yet to re-sign. I do not expect him to move to the Blues by any means, but who will the surprises be? There is no obvious option that jumps out, so will the Blues re-sign Ruru? A slow pass is what holds Ruru back, and surely there will be a halfback in Auckland club rugby who makes the Mitre 10 Cup squad who can move past him. I believe the Blues will find someone, somewhere. 

Option: M10 Cup Prospect

In midfield, the Blues will look for a midfielder, most likely a second five although they might get a centre as well. Of all Super Rugby midfielders, only Anton Lienert-Brown appears to not be locked in. If he does moves, then you would expect that it would not be a move to the Blues. So once again they will look to the level below. Whoever joins, needs to be young and hungry, except for one man I am touting for second five. I will describe the centre first. Playing under Rieko Ioane they will not get much game time, but if there is an injury they could be thrust into the limelight. Could a loan from the UK be an option again? I don’t think so. Maybe they could nab a returning star but ultimately I feel this position is best suited for a younger guy. With the Blues running the opposite style to the history of NZ rugby, with the big centre and the finesse at second-five, then Julian Savea possibly would not suit the style, although he could play centre. Yes, I am suggesting the bus should park in Auckland. Now living in New Zealand’s biggest city, I expect to see Savea in a North Harbour or Auckland shirt during the Mitre 10 Cup. Savea could add some much need experience to the Blues as they strive for the top. This will be laughed off by many, but unlikely to start many games there are worse backups around.

Option: Julian Savea and M10 Cup Prospect

Finally, the Blues will look to strengthen out wide. Manasa Mataele is one option to be brought in. Mataele is often forgotten and he will surely depart the Crusaders in search of game time. The Highlanders, Hurricanes and Chiefs could all well feel he is worth pursuing, but none could guarantee him playtime. It certainly would be good for the Blues. The other two guys can afford to be a little younger. Ideally, one could cover fullback. There are not a lot of obvious options once more, so this could be a bit unknown. Could they offer Tevita Nabura a second stab at Super Rugby? Maybe Kris Kuindrani? Neither of these feel very likely, so they will likely give one of Jared Page and Jordan Hyland a second crack. I suggest Page at 27 is the better option. Finally, Jordan Trainor could well be offered a second chance by the Blues if he can put together a strong Mitre 10 Cup.

Option: Re-sign Jared Page, Jordan Trainor and Manasa Mataele

THE FINDINGS

After a strong showing in 2021, The Blues will be looking to build depth, as well as adding touches here and there. I have suggested Rob Cobb and Kianu Kereru-Symes could be signings that set them up for future success, while young halfback should also be in the offing. A youngster and Julian Savea could well build some decent depth, as they look to kick on, while Jordan Trainor and Manasa Mataele could come in and challenge for a starting birth. Finally, Jared Page could be offered a second chance.

2021 SQUAD

Karl Tu’inukuafe, Alex Hodgman, Rob Cobb, Kurt Eklund, James Parsons, Kianu Kereru-Symes, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Sione Mafileo, Marcel Renata, Patrick Tuipulotu, Aaron Carroll, Gerrard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Jacob Pierce, Sam Darry, Akira Ioane, Tony Lamborn, Tom Robinson, Hoskins Sotutu, Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Sam Nock, M10 Cup Prospect, Otere Black, Stephan Perofeta, Jack Heighton, Harry Plummer, TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Tanielu Tele’a, Julian SaveaM10 Cup Prospect Second Five, Caleb Clarke, Mark Tela, Emoni Narawa, Jared Page, Jordan Trainor, Manasa Mataele

So this is the end of the series. I have found it rather intriguing to see who needs what and who they could get, as the season has ended expect things to start to move fast, as a lot of these articles already seem outdated! Be sure to leave a comment with your thoughts or a question!

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter @Nicholasfriedl3

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