Beauden can't save Blues' blushes
OPINION: Beauden Barrett’s signing with the Blues for 2020 and beyond has been hailed as a huge coup for a franchise that has underperformed for the better part of the last two decades.
Barrett, equally as comfortable at flyhalf or fullback, was one of the All Blacks’ most valuable players in their World Cup campaign last year and is a huge loss for his old franchise, the Hurricanes.
The marquee signing shows that there’s still life in the Blues left. The run of bad form isn’t enough to completely deter players heading to Auckland – providing that there are enough other incentives on the table.
All that being said, Barrett’s signing isn’t quite as straightforward as those made in the past.
As part of Barrett’s new contract, the playmaker will take an extended break from rugby and won’t appear for the Blues until mid-April.
Further, Barrett has the option of taking a separate sabbatical at a later date.
Those two clauses could result in the former World Rugby Player of the Year turning out for the Blues for just two-and-a-half seasons of his four-year contract.
That aside, it’s still a major boon for the Blues, who will have at their disposal one of the best players in the country.
Barrett’s addition means the Blues certainly won’t be lacking flyhalf options next year.
Already on their books were Otere Black, Harry Plummer and Stephen Perofeta – although injury kept Perofeta off the park in 2019.
Story continues below…
Along with Barrett, 20-year-old Jack Heighton has signed on with the Blues despite not yet suiting up for his local North Harbour province in the Mitre 10 Cup.
All-in-all, there’s a logjam of potential at 10 but not a whole lot of proven talent for when Barrett is unavailable.
Perofeta was long seen as the man who could one day lead the Blues to a Super Rugby title but persistent injuries have hampered his growth. With Black and Plummer both making a good fist of flyhalf in 2019, Perofeta may find his best opportunity for game time at the back of the play in the 15 jersey.
Matt Duffie is the only surviving outside back from last year’s Blues squad, with Melani Nanai heading to England, Michael Collins transferring to the Blues, Caleb Clarke suiting up with the All Blacks Sevens and Jordan Trainor deemed surplus to requirements.
Rieko Ioane is still in the squad, of course, but he’s been named as a midfielder first and foremost.
The absence of experience in the back three gives Perofeta a great shot at making the fullback position his own and would allow the Taranaki product to find the confidence that made him such a promising up-and-comer in the first place.
That leaves Black and Plummer to duke it out for the 10 jersey for another year.
At just 24 and 21 years of age, respectively, there’s ample time for the two to develop into excellent first fives, but that won’t be of much use to the Blues if the pair can’t produce results in 2020.
The Blues have gone eight years without a play-offs appearance, with their best place finish in that timeframe coming in 2017 when they ended the season as ninth on the ladder.
Barrett could find his new team is already well off the pace for a spot in the finals when he makes his first appearance for the year – which will dull the impact of the star signing’s pull-power from the fans’ point of view.
Regardless, the new recruit will likely find himself operating from the fullback jersey, with his minimal time with the squad unlikely to prepare him for operating a completely new team, after being thrown into the thick of things in the middle of the season.
It’s going to be a disjointed year for the Blues in 2020, with Beauden Barrett’s eventual presence likely to create very obvious ‘before’ and ‘after’ periods for the season. Will the All Blacks be able to help guide Super Rugby’s underperformers to a first finals appearance since 2011? Only time will tell.
By Tom Vinicombe, @RugbyPass