New Zealand rugby currently has an iron grip on the Southern Hemisphere and more specifically in Super Rugby. The last four titles have been won by Kiwi franchises and this dominance doesn’t seem to be fading.
The Highlanders won their first Super Rugby title in 2014 and next season the Hurricanes achieved the same feat. The Crusaders have won back to back titles in 2017 and 2018 and hold the record for the most Super Rugby titles overall with 8.
Last season the Crusaders finished 1st, Hurricanes 4th, Chiefs 5th and the Highlanders 6th on the overall standings and all four franchises ended the season with winning records.
But there is of course one team I forgot to mention, one team that is an exception to this period of Kiwi dominance. I am of course referring to the Auckland Blues who I will talk about in this blog.
Despite their recent woes the Auckland Blues are one of New Zealand’s most successful franchises winning three titles in 1996, 1997 and 2003.
The Blues were founded in 1996 by the NZRU to compete in the inaugural season of Super Rugby, the Blues found immediate success finishing 2nd behind the Queensland Reds.
They defeated Northern Transvaal 48 -11 in the semi-finals and destroyed the Sharks 45-21 in the final, Auckland became the first ever champions of Super Rugby and next season a second championship followed.
The Blues went through the entire season undefeated and finished 1st, they brushed aside the Sharks once again in the semi-finals and eased past the Brumbies in the final winning 23-7.
The following season Auckland defeated the Otago Highlanders 37-31 in the semis to reach a third consecutive final, they played against the Crusaders at Eden Park.
The match was a closely fought battle with very few points being scored, going into second half the match was locked at 13-13 with both teams scoring one try a piece. With one minute left the Crusaders received the ball on Auckland’s 10 metre line and Andrew Mehrtens kicked the ball aimlessly into Auckland’s 22. The kick bounced awkwardly and the Blues were unable to secure the ball on their try line which allowed James Kerr to score a last-minute winner.
The match finished 20-13 to the Crusaders who won their first Super Rugby title and Auckland were denied the chance to claim a third straight championship.
5 years had passed before the Blues reached another Super Rugby final and they faced the Crusaders once again at Eden Park. The Blues claimed their revenge beating the Crusaders 21-17 to win their third Super Rugby title.
The Blues struggled to replicate their success in the two following seasons finishing 5th and 7th and failing to qualify for the playoffs.
In 2006, Super 12 was expanded by two teams and the competition was renamed as the Super 14, this didn’t benefit Auckland though as they failed to qualify for the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Auckland finished 4th at the end of the 2007 season and played against the Sharks in an away semi final in Durban. Both Rudi Wolf and Isa Nacewa scored tries in the match but it wasn’t enough to guide them victory with the match finishing 34-18 to the Sharks.
Since then the Blues have only reached the playoffs on one occasion in 2011 and their highest finish was 4th once again in 2011,
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and the Blues have by far the largest pool of talent to choose from, 76% of their current squad includes players who are from the Auckland region.
This should give the Blues a major advantage over their Kiwi rivals but instead the complete opposite is happening, 61 players from the Auckland region play for New Zealand’s four other franchises. Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Kieran Read (Crusaders), Ben Lam (Hurricanes) and Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes) are notable examples.
The Blues seem to perform well one season and next year their form disappears into thin air, this inconsistency has plagued the franchise for years.
This failure isn’t down to a lack of talent with their squad in the past containing the likes of Keven Mealamu (2003-15), Tony Woodcock (2002-15), Ali Williams (2002-13), Joe Rokocoko (2003-11), Isaia Toeava (2005-12), Jerome Kaino (2004-18), Luke McAlister (2004-11), John Afoa (2004-11), Charlie Faumuina (2009-11) and Steven Luatua (2012-17) who have all represented the All Blacks.
The Blues current squad is loaded with quality players such as Sonny Bill Williams, George Moala, James Parsons, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipolutu, Akira and Rieko Ioane who have all won caps for New Zealand.
Blake Gibson, Michael Collins, Scott Scrafton, Jordan Trainor, Sione Mafileo, Leni Apisai, Josh Goodhue, Jimmy Tupou, Sam Nock, Otere Black, Stephen Perofeta and TJ Faiane have all played for New Zealand U20’s and have competed in the IRB under-20’s World Championship for the Baby Blacks.
Perhaps this lack of success and inconsistency is down to poor coaching and a lack of effective leadership.
Since being formed in 1996 the Blues have hired nine different head coaches including the likes of Graham Henry, Pat Lam and John Kirwan. So far Kirwan’s tenure has lasted the longest (3 seasons). His unsuccessful three year reign is a perfect example of the Blues recent struggles on the field, Kirwan managed to win only 17 of his 58 matches in charge with their highest finish being 10th in his first season.
Auckland stagnated in John Kirwan’s second season with the franchise winning 7 and losing 9 out of their 16 matches finishing 10th once again, the Blues had a good squad containing experienced players such as Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu but the franchise failed to make any progress.
Kirwan’s third season began with 23-18 loss to the Chiefs and this set the tone for the rest of the season, the Blues went on to lose another 6 matches before finally defeating the Brumbies 16-14 in the eighth week of the season.
However once again a lack of consistency cost the Blues and they went to win only two more matches for the rest of the season. Auckland went on to have their worst ever season in Super Rugby finishing 14th with a record of 3 wins and 13 losses. This proved to be the end for Kirwan who resigned at the end of the season. Kirwan was succeeded by All Black legend Tana Umaga.
Umaga took over before the start of 2016 Super Rugby season, his tenure started with a memorable 33-31 victory over the Highlanders in week one however the Blues lost 28-13 to the Crusaders the following match. The Blues improved on their disastrous 2016 season but not by much, the Blues finished the season 11th with eight victories, one draw and six losses.
Sanzaar expanded Super Rugby to 18 teams ahead of the 2017 season with the introduction of the Sunwolves, Jaguares and Southern Kings.
The Blues were placed in an Australasian group with their fellow New Zealand and Australian rivals. Despite starting the season with a dominant 56-18 win over the Queensland Reds, Auckland failed to build on this victory. The Blues struggled to string together a run of victories instead every game seemed to be a throw of a dice to decide the victor.
Umaga’s second season ended with a record of seven victories, one draw and seven losses, the Blues ended the season just as they started with victory over the Queensland Reds.
Third season syndrome struck again for Auckland in 2018 with the franchise suffering another horrendous campaign, the Blues finished last place in the New Zealand conference and 14th on the overall standings. They lost 12 of their 16 matches and the franchise looks to have hit rock bottom.
Conceding 63 points at home against the Sharks and 54 points away at the Crusaders are some lowlights of the Blues season, some highlights include beating 2017 and 18 finalists the Lions and 2014 winners the Waratahs both away from home, this isn’t enough though.
So far Umaga has won 18, drawn two and lost 25 of his 46 matches at the helm this gives him a win percentage of 40. In the same amount of matches the Crusaders have won 39 and lost 7 for a win percentage of 84.
Tana Umaga has been backed to lead the Blues into the 2019 Super Rugby season and the pressure will be on to salvage this once great franchise. It will be Umaga’s fourth season in charge and the Blues should be aiming for a winning record at the end of the year, at the moment this seems very unlikely.
The biggest challenge facing Auckland will be trying to compete against their closest rivals in New Zealand having failed to win in any of their last 13 matches (1 draw, 12 losses). Tana Umaga will be given the time he deserves to revive this franchise, victory against the Crusaders at the beginning of next season would be a great way to start.
I would like to credit the All Blacks YouTube channel, the Blues YouTube channel, superduperugby and sthisland1 for the videos provided in this blog, the relevant links are below.