ANALYSIS: How to fix the Blues
The Blues have lost their way, lost the interest of Aucklanders and the players and coaching staff look lost for answers. How did this happen? There will never be one definitive answer. What we do know is that other teams do things differently and are having far more success.
The national/local recruitment paradigm
The landscape of recruitment in the country has been rapidly evolving in the last 10 years. The professionalism of the game requires it. The Chiefs, Crusaders, and Highlanders have been able to bat above their size by pursuing aggressive national recruitment strategies. Where did the Chiefs get Damian McKenzie from? Where did the Crusaders get Jack Goodhue from? Where did the Highlanders get most of their team from? And more importantly, at what age?
The players growing up in your backyard are no longer ‘yours’ which has long been the attitude of the two biggest national playing pools of Auckland and the Hurricanes region. Throw aggressive NRL teams into the mix and you simply cannot afford to stay local, which for the large part is what the Blues have done.
The most successful rugby team, at any level in Auckland this decade has been St Kentigern College 1st XV. They have won five of the last eight 1A titles, reached the National Top 4 final twice and won one National title. They would not have done any of that if they recruited from just Auckland.
The Blues need to take a leaf out of their book because they recruit locally, nationally and internationally but still have the right culture that brings everything together. They do whatever it takes to win in all areas – the work that needs to be done on and off the field.
They also benefit in ways you don’t expect. A kid that leaves home in search of an opportunity also has something different about him than the local kid that lives at home in comfort. The mentality changes, they need to form new bonds, they mature as individuals and become more self-driven. I’m sure that’s what helps the St Kent’s boys bond together. Perhaps that’s why so many ex-Blues players find success when forced to move away from their comfort zone. It is a hugely understated influence on the Highlanders culture.
The Blues could benefit from more players with that mentality coming through their academy system.
Last night during the Anzac moment of silence the Highlanders players were locked in arms, whilst the Blues players stood respectfully as individuals. Two perfectly acceptable ways to pay respect but perhaps a perfect illustration of the difference in mentality between the sides.
Recruit and invest early, don’t buy late
The Blues do have players from outside the region on the roster like Michael Collins (Otago), Leni Apisai (Wellington), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki), Bryn Gatland (Waikato). However, none of these players came through a Blues academy. These players were brought in after they developed through other systems.
The Blues didn’t scout Perofeta at schoolboy level and say ‘that’s our guy, let’s go get him, let’s have him train and play every day with Rieko Ioane for the next three years in our academy so they know each other inside and out’. That’s what the Chiefs do. That’s what the Crusaders do. The Chiefs banked on McKenzie as a 16-year-old, went out and got him into their system.
Even the best local talent is heading elsewhere. St Kentigern’s had a once-in-a-generation talent in Etene Nanai-Seturo playing 1st XV the last three years in Auckland, who after a tug-of-war is currently playing for the New Zealand Sevens. He played for the Chiefs U18 whilst at school, and turned out for Counties Sevens last year indicating he is aligned with the Chiefs. If that doesn’t indicate something is wrong with the Blues recruitment, nothing will.
Outside of the St Kent’s programme, there has to be a realisation that the Auckland 1A 1st XV competition is not the best in the country to rely on. Not even close. Once that realisation is made, it’s time to join the party and look nationally for your talent. It’s time to make the investment early rather trying to lure a player after they’ve made it to Mitre 10. Bring them in young and develop them with your way of doing things.
Currently, every player that grew up outside of the Blues region that is on the Blues roster did not go through a Blues academy. Meaning, they went through someone else’s academy and that franchise let them go.
There will, of course, be a need to source players from other provincial unions, but fill the Blues academy with national talent first and see what you can produce and then add the last pieces. They have three provincial unions with which to spread their talent, Northland, North Harbour and Auckland and should have Counties but that’s another story.
Who is the right coach?
Every coach looks better with a team that has chemistry. As Scotty Stevenson stated during commentary Friday night, the Blues ‘don’t lack the talent’. They lack chemistry and this could be a contributing factor as to why they are a good team but a long way from being a top team in the New Zealand conference.
If the Blues looked nationally earlier and started bringing in the best talent in country into their academies, the team would start to have a reliable core of players with a high level of ability that have been working on their chemistry for years and years before they hit Super Rugby level. They can adjust to different game plans and add more complexity as they go.
You can’t say the Blues have had more injury problems than the Chiefs, yet the Chiefs continue to win despite having half their roster on the sidelines and a new coach and system to implement. The Chiefs recruitment strategy is world’s apart from the Blues, they are going after talent from everywhere.