Blues 2022 Season


So, that’s that. Second, behind a team that got up and played their best rugby in the final. After working through the usual cycle of Denial, Anger, Bargaining and then Depression, it’s time for Acceptance.

Overall, this was a big season for the Blues, a big step forward. No question, about it, we’re credible, and for all bar the end of the season, the best side in the competition. We broke some key mental barriers, won away in Christchurch against a Crusaders side that were up for it, and dominated large parts of the season. In fact, barring ten minutes of fitness induced madness in Game 1, it would have been a perfect season heading into the Final.

By any measure except winning the final, that’s a damn good season.


Season Review

Part 1 - the buildup.
The Blues had the most disrupted preseason of any franchise. Lockdowns last year meant no NPC for Auckland sides, so the flash import (RTS) hadn’t even played a game of rugby. Early lockdowns stopped the team from getting together. The season started in Queenstown (remember that???) with a preseason game against the Canes on the way South.

Early season - the first 6 games
Canes, Chiefs, Highlanders, Highlanders, MP, MP
A first up loss to the Canes, but playing some sensational rugby. Then 10 minutes of madness, where the lack of preseason conditioning kicked in, and the Canes finished over the top. I said at the time I wasn’t worried, but a number of people wrote them off nonetheless (old mental fragility, etc). No one would have picked that was the last loss for 112 days.

Against the Chiefs we did everything but win the game. Two stupid penalties in the last few minutes, but Bryn Gatland couldn’t knock over the penalty and the win streak started.

Honestly, this part of the season isn’t memorable in hindsight, I’m struggling to remember much about the games. The Highlanders were dealt with, and then Moana Pacifika in Storm Week with the B side getting a run. The first game at Mt Smart was memorable for the controlled surge up the field to score the winning points while a man down - a harbinger for what was to come. The return match at EP was a lot more one sided, and a comfortable win.

Mid season - setting up a dominant position
Chiefs, Crusaders (away)
For me, these were two back to back games where we played good football. 25-0 against the Chiefs showed the defensive effort, followed by a win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. This stretch really set us up to go into the back end of the season at the top of the table, and the run home.

Late season
Drua, Force, Reds, Rebels, Brumbies, Tahs
Some great rugby cutting capers against the Reds, some clutch plays with DG to win games (Brumbies, Tahs), some incredible refereeing (a team YC in 4 minutes against the Force), a B side squeaking out a win in Sydney, but overall a sequence of wins to cement top spot for the playoffs.

Playoffs
Highlanders, Brumbies, Crusaders
I won’t write too much about the playoffs as they’re nice and recent, but had some unfortunate injuries to Papali’i and Clarke. Dalton has been massive for us this season, keeping people focussed and staying in the refs ear. We really missed him. He’s been huge, both playing and leading. Next AB Captain?


Positives

  • Massive depth built in the squad.
  • Best team in the comp (pre final)
  • Consistently good crowds, building to a sellout final
  • We’re now a credible destination for players to to come to
  • 12 All Blacks - from hardly getting any a few years ago
  • Team culture looks great - a bunch of people enjoying their company
  • Our defence is absolutely top tier. We are very hard to break down
  • Our spine has come on massively, with Eklund/Sotutu/Christie/Barrett/Perofeta.

That said, let’s get my opinion on position groups


Position Review

Outside backs:
Perofeta has been sensational, and well rewarded for the AB utility slot. Many (including me) had written him off. Lam and Telea are solid understudies to Clarke, who was a beast before getting a hamstring injury. Hopefully he’ll be good as gold for the test programme - still the most dynamic left winger.

Zarn Sullivan hasn’t had a lot of game time, but looks silk every time he touches the ball. His 40m droppie under pressure agains the Tahs was clutch, a thing of absolute beauty. Looking forward to seeing him get more minutes next year.


Midfield
RTS has grown through the season. Hasn’t shown the hot stepping feet yet, but has been reliable defensively.

Rieko has gone from strength to strength, distribution still very good. His pace is electric, he’s torn apart some good midfields this year. Still building, but has come a very long way in the last few years. Corey Evans looks a real prospect, can’t wait to see more of him.

A special shout out to Heem, he’s been solid, Mr Fixit and played all over the backline. Experience is gold, particularly with a new, young group like this one.


Halves
Barrett has been solid, and (final aside) stepped up when needed. That said, all the classic BB weaknesses are still there - kicking from hand not excellent, pace down a touch. Still physical, knows what’s needed, and my pick for the ABs 10 jersey.

Perofeta has taken his NPC form to the next level, kicked really well, and taken over the goal kicking duties. Good to see him flourish.

Halfbacks were a mixed bag. Christie is very good at passing, and an absolute pest on defence - he’s so quick he covers everything. Should run more, a snipe or two a game would keep the defence from driftin early. Kicking is mixed, sometimes good, but often doesn’t get the distance needed at the top level.

I love Nock, but he has regressed massively this year. Strong in the ruck, but poor at core tasks. Pass has gone backwards, the kicking is sometimes excellent, sometimes poor. Defensively strong, but not as mobile as Christie.

Funaki looks OK - haven’t watched him enough to remember anything sensible to write.


Loosies
Our strongest area. The trio of Dalton/Akira/Hoskins could be a starting combo for any test side in the world. Plumtree just catches the eye, and along with Suafoa look physical specimens. Segner looks a reasonable prospect, hard working.


Locks
Weakest area and it cost us in the final. Robinson looks light to me (the stats never lie apparently, but the ‘eye’ test is tough on his size). Darry is growing, but a fair way off physical dominant.

Tucker had a bloody good season, not sure why he wasn’t played in the finals.

Romano had a resurgent season, but you wouldn’t call him a lineout lock, or a mobile athlete. Brought massive experience though ,and filled a role we needed.


Hookers
Eklund had a season where he really stepped up (again, final aside). Solid around the park, reliable lineout throwing, and good over the ball. One of our defensive stars.

Riccitelli was awful, the lineout throwing just didn’t work for him.

Vikena stepped up though, and seemed to be coming on - cemented his spot as Number 2 hooker in the squad.


Props
All All Blacks. Ofa’s scrummaging seems to have gone backwards - but that may be the weakness at lock. Hodgman has been mobile and solid. Laulala and KT good in the scrum, but not mobile or athletic.

Nepo’s red agains MP was one of the stupidest things I’ve seen for a while (and I’ve watched the Blues for years eh).


General comment

So, that’s that. Lots of good points. I won’t touch on the final except to say our defence was sensational and championship winning level. If we don’t hand over so much possession and territory we only get a quarter of the rucks, we’d have provided a far more satisfying watch. Outstanding Crusaders effort, and well done to the, they saved their best game for the final. Most sides would have been ripped apart by the end of the first half.

Question for next year is to find a third hooker, decent locks, and get the set piece rolling again. Got to hope Coventry steps it up.

Finally, a shout out to Leon. Taking this franchise from the depths to the heights. It’s a fresh squad, they’re resetting and learning good habits, and it’s looking good. We’ve built a strong talent pipeline, have the best stadium in the country, finally got good administration and a competent board. We are maturing, and will take a huge amount from a very good year. It just still feels quite bitter at the moment.

This whole success is built from the Board down. Massive shout out to Don Mackinnon to chair, and John Hart who is a long term winner. We’re positioned to build nicely into next year.

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