Blues say goodbye to four players
NEWS: Four long-term stalwarts of the Blues have finished their careers with the Auckland franchise following Saturday’s 23-15 win over the Highlanders.
Following the victory, head coach Leon MacDonald confirmed the Blues will have to make do without flyhalf Otere Black, flank Blake Gibson, lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and midfielder TJ Faiane in 2022, with the quartet all signing off on their Blues tenures on a high.
Black is perhaps the highest-profile departee, with the former Bay of Plenty flyhalf heading to Japan ahead of next season’s revamped Top League.
Black joined the Blues in 2018 after three years with the Hurricanes – ostensibly to get out from underneath Beauden Barrett’s shadow and make a name for himself as a starting flyhalf.
The 26-year-old wasn’t able to take the field in his first season with the Blues, however, after rupturing his ACL during the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup.
Black has become a semi-permanent fixture in the Blues No.10 jersey since making his debut in 2019, chalking up 40 appearances over three seasons and guiding the team to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title on Saturday.
With Beauden Barrett set to return to the organisation next year, Zarn Sullivan establishing himself as first-choice fullback and NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck joining the franchise, Black has understandably decided that minutes could be hard to come by in the future.
Joining Black in Japan will be Cowley-Tuioti and Faiane.
The 29-year-old Cowley-Tuioti has represented the Blues for six seasons and is rumoured to be taking Brodie Retallick’s spot at Wayne Smith’s Kobelco Steelers. Former All Blacks hooker James Parsons recently suggested that the second-rower could be due an All Blacks call-up later this season but his impending departure will likely curtail any potential call-up.
Faine – who’s stepped in as matchday captain of the franchise on regular occasions – has been the glue that’s held the Blues backline together in his half-century of matches. The 25-year-old’s destination is yet to be confirmed.
Openside flank Gibson, meanwhile, is heading to another New Zealand franchise, having been forced out of the matchday 23 by the likes of Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson, Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu.
With All Black Dillon Hunt also on the books – though forging an ongoing battle with concussion – Gibson’s minutes at present are dictated by injuries.
Gibson was previously called in to train with the All Blacks in 2017 but has been usurped by young talent at the Blues.
All four departees played vital roles in Saturday’s victory over the Highlanders.
Black guided the team around the park well while Faiane was infallible in the midfield. Cowley-Tuioti was on the park for the full 80 minutes while Gibson joined the fray late in the match and scored the try that ultimately sealed the victory for the home side.
“We’re generally pretty full,” MacDonald said regarding the Blues roster for next season. “Maybe one or two to go.
“There’s been a lot of decisions about where do we fit everybody,” added Blues chief executive Andrew Hore. “Hence the Blake’s and that of this world [leaving]. Second row … with [Cowley-Tuioti] leaving.
“Also, there’s a lot of young kids that are coming through. We’ll hopefully get that balance right now and that’s something the organisation wants to work on, is making sure we get that balance right between young and old, getting that experience and leadership across the board.”
The Blues’ victory over the Highlanders marked their first Super Rugby title since 2003.
By Tom Vinicombe, @Rugbypass