The All Blacks' unexpected flyhalf option
OPINION: That was a performance to remember for Otere Black – and it was a long time coming.
The Blues got their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign off to a dazzling start in front of a packed-out Eden Park with a 30-20 win over the Hurricanes, thanks largely to a career-best performance by Black, a man many had written off in recent weeks.
At perhaps the most pivotal moment in his young career, Black paid back the faith of Blues selectors to start in a match that was supposed to be all about Beauden Barrett.
The headlines on Sunday belong to the man from Manawatu who, with his 15-points and flawless kicking display, showed that he could make plays, time his passes to perfection, and run the backline at both first and second receiver.
There will be a lot of chatter about the influence that Barrett and Dan Carter had on the Blues’ big win, but to look past Black in that 80-minutes of rugby would be incredibly naive.
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The confidence that the 25-year old showed in his game on Sunday was remarkable; he was entirely unfazed by the massive crowd and bulky size of tacklers targeting him. Black, like most first fives, has never been the biggest man on the rugby field in any given game, but he never looked rushed in the showdown with the Hurricanes – which should remind rugby fans of other Kiwi greats to don the same number jersey.
Where Carlos Spencer was all about the razzle-dazzle during the Blues heyday, Otere Black plays in a style similar to that of an Aaron Cruden and new Blues teammate Dan Carter, with the ability to place kicks perfectly both in the air and along the ground without having to do anything flashy.
Executing set piece or in broken play, Black also held the pass just long enough to give more room to his outside runners in the performance against the Hurricanes. Black can thank the hard work of his forward pack, particularly the impact of loosie Hoskins Sotutu, who cracked the line to give the Blues great go-forward ball throughout.
Oh, but the influence of Barrett and Carter? No, these are bits to Blacks’ game that he’s been working on for a long time.
Black deserves all the credit, you’d be hard stretched to find a better performance out of the 25-year old that matched today’s showing and its importance cannot be underscored enough.
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Great things have been expected of the Black almost since he first caught the eye back in the green and white Manawatu Turbos strip. Following on from that, Black stood out for New Zealand Under 20 side before losing some of his momentum when he started out his Super Rugby career with the Hurricanes – thanks, in part, to a run of unfortunate injuries.
Cut from the same cloth as the likes of Ihaia West, Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane, it was perhaps these three that many saw as bright talents for the future and who were lumped with lofty expectations.
On Sunday, Black met and exceeded those expectations, and it’s truly fascinating that it came at this time in particular.
All the headlines about the Blues ahead of Super Rugby Aotearoa have been about Barrett and Carter. Any talk about Black in the press has been around him being something of the unluckiest player in New Zealand Rugby, to have those two stars arrive in camp as he was preparing and finally ready to get concentrated time running the Blues backline.
It would’ve been an easy, perhaps even safer bet by Blues coach Leon MacDonald to have Barrett start at first five instead of Black or to do a straight swap of the two later in the match, especially considering the likes of Matt Duffie and Harry Plummer also being in the stable.
That, as it turns out, would’ve been a tremendous lost opportunity because the pairing of Black and Barrett seemed to gel without any issue whatsoever. What’s more, that pairing looked more fluid and certain for the Blues than the much-talked-about Mo’unga/Barrett combination at first five and fullback respectively ever did in 2019 for the All Blacks.
That should really say something about the merits of Black’s performance against the Hurricanes. It’s only early days in Super Rugby Aotearoa, but Black has already positioned himself as the first five of form.
Who would’ve thought that little over a week ago? Certainly not those who wrote Black off and painted Beauden Barrett as the great Blues savour.
By Michael Pulman, Rugbypass