Super Rugby: Blues must open the Leon MacDonald era with early statement

2019-02-15 01:24:56

Leon MacDonald is right, of course. Nothing will be won or lost in round one. No jigs will be danced, nor inquests launched based on a single game of Super Rugby in which teams have been heavily compromised by All Blacks protocols.

The show will go on, win lose or draw, and the campaign will assuredly not be defined by either a first-up stumble, or a mighty opening rumble.

He is right, but he is wrong. Saturday night's visit by back-to-back champions the Crusaders to serial underachievers the Blues at Eden Park might not decide anything, but it should tell us a heck of a lot about the beleaguered Auckland franchise and whether the sweeping changes that have taken place are going to transform anything on the field.

Maybe not all we need to know; but a decent prod in the right direction.

It is fair to say that this match is a heck of a lot more important for the Blues than it is the Crusaders. And that's said with all due respect to title town where every game is treated with the utmost deference. They all matter to these hungry buggers.

The Auckland outfit don't necessarily need to win to tick their box from round one. The right sort of a defeat to a side as good as the Crusaders – even playing without their star All Blacks trio of Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor – would still be acceptable.

But, by God, they have to show signs that they have addressed some of the issues from seasons past. You know them, the last umpteen that have produced little but ignominy for this once proud franchise. They have to show a collective nous and backbone that has been badly missing for the last half-decade or more. They have to demonstrate a winning culture that recognises the importance of matters such as field position, time and score and prevailing conditions.

They have to play with fire and passion as well as smarts and cunning; they have to have each other's backs, understand the big moments when they come up and mix their undoubted flair and creativity with more intrinsic qualities such as power, discipline and defence.

Most importantly, they have to demonstrate palpably, to their fans, their critics and themselves, that the lame outfit that pretty much mailed in the back half of their dispiriting 2018 season will never be seen again in these blue jerseys. That they have too much pride to roll that out again.

Hope springs eternal in the big city, as it often does at this time of the year. But this time it's different.

The wheels have been turning vigorously behind the scenes. There has been a cleanout in the boardroom and the coaching setup. Attitudes and relationships within the franchise have been flipped. Auckland's success in the provincial premiership has been embraced. Young faces have been added to the player group, a couple of older ones too, and a major piece of Crusaders intellectual property installed.

That would be MacDonald who played 122 matches between 1997 and 2009 for the Red and Blacks, and knows a fair bit about the makeup of a successful franchise. Throw in the 2017 title-winning season as an assistant coach down there, and he brings to his new role as Blues head coach fair lashings of red and black.

"The way you coach is made up of years and years of playing with different teams and under different coaches and you form your own formula from that," explained  MacDonald when asked if he had introduced aspects of the Crusaders culture to his new gig. "There have been things I've learned as a Crusaders player and my time coaching but also from my time with Tasman as well.

"I'm very fortunate I've got a lot of good mentors I talk to regularly and am always trying to improve as a coach. You end up with your own formula in the end, but there will elements of my time in the Crusaders."

Translation: You betya.

MacDonald sends out a pretty handy lineup that has been influenced by protocols around All Blacks. He has three of November's tourists in his starting lineup and another three on his bench.

It's a group that looks to have a good mix of resilience and brilliance. Men like Otere Black and Michael Collins in the backs and Patty Tuipulotu and Dalton Papalii up front will keep things smart and sensible and direct, while the Ioane brothers,  Melani Nanai, TJ Faiane and a certain Ma'a Nonu will likely provide the flash and dash.

The Crusaders have chosen a very good team themselves, with all their heavy-hitters apart from the aforementioned resting trio. They are riding an eight-match win streak against the Blues and have not lost on Eden Park since 2014.

They will back their outstanding systems and collective resilience to blunt whatever comes their way. It's what they do. But it's what the Blues do that will be watched most closely.


Blues: Michael Collins, Melani Nanai, Ma'a Nonu, TJ Faiane, Rieko Ioane, Otere Black, Jonathan Ruru; Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Patrick Tuipulotu (capt), Sione Mafileo, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Matt Moulds, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Matt Matich, Augustine Pulu, Harry Plummer, Sonny Bill Williams.

Crusaders: David Havili, Manasa Mataele, Braydon Ennor, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Matt Todd (c), Jordan Taufua, Quinten Strange, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Andrew Makalio, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Tim Perry, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Will Jordan.

Referee: Nick Briant (NZ).

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