As part of SA Rugby magazine’s in-depth Super Rugby preview edition, DYLAN JACK looks at what to expect from the Blues and Highlanders.
The Blues have been the perennial underachievers of New Zealand rugby for the past decade. While they have had exciting attacking players, a lack of forward grunt – combined with off-field culture issues – have had the team finish bottom of the New Zealand conference seven times in the past nine years.
The 2019 season was no different in this regard. Despite bringing in veteran midfielder Ma’a Nonu and switching head coaches from Tana Umaga to Leon MacDonald, the Blues still finished in a disappointing 13th place with a -22 points differential.
However, the Auckland side will go into 2020 with lofty ambitions. Part of the reason is that, unlike their New Zealand rivals, they have managed to retain a good deal of their 2019 squad. In fact, they have built a side that could be the surprise of the season.
While Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams have departed, the Blues have more than filled the gap with the signing of Beauden Barrett. The All Blacks playmaker is expected to link up with the team halfway through the season after a short break from rugby and will bring with him a genuine star quality that has been missing from the Blues halfbacks.
It is hoped Barrett will strike up an effective partnership with fellow All Black Rieko Ioane, who has signalled his intention to switch from wing to centre.
The loan signing of Joe Marchant will also be of interest to Blues fans. The 23-year-old English back, who can play at wing and centre, joins as part of a new co-operation agreement between Harlequins and New Zealand Rugby. It will be fascinating to see how the promising youngster fits in and develops.
It is promising that MacDonald appears to have taken on the lessons of previous seasons and has said the class of 2020 will be defined by their work rate on and off the field.
‘It is important that last year’s experiences count,’ he said. ‘We must build on that. And we make no bones about the fact that we are going to be a hard-working team. There won’t be any predictions coming from this group, just a case of no guts, no glory for the Blues in 2020.’
This is a vital mental shift which, if implemented properly, could pay dividends and see the Blues fulfil their promise and make a charge for the playoffs.
The Highlanders, like other New Zealand franchises, have said farewell to a raft of experienced players. However, the Dunedin team will be undergoing possibly the biggest rebuild of any Kiwi side in 2020 after losing no less than 16 players.
Most keenly felt will be the absence of fullback Ben Smith, who has signed for French side Pau, and flank Liam Squire, who will take up a two-year contract in Japan. Waisake Naholo has also left for newly promoted English Premiership side London Irish. That leaves the team relying on the experience of hooker Liam Coltman and scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
As an added bonus, the Highlanders have managed to rope in the services of Japan assistant Tony Brown as an attack coach. A deep thinker and innovator, Brown earned plenty of plaudits for his role in Jamie Joseph’s coaching staff as Japan progressed to the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals.
The 2020 calendar presents the Highlanders with a tough start as four of their opening six fixtures are away from home. Last season, they managed to win only two of their nine games on the road. The team will have to learn to win away from home and that is where the lack of experience could cause them to struggle.
Given the transition the Highlanders will be going through, along with the strengthening of the other New Zealand franchises, it will be surprising to see them qualify for the playoffs.