Auckland Blues Diary - The Backs

 Welcome to Auckland yo

Welcome to Auckland yo

It's safe to say that I became quite disenfranchised with the Auckland Blues in recent years. As a Jaffa who has spent a few hours on Eden Park's terraces watching Zinzan Brooke, Carlos Spencer and Adrian Cashmore, the way the Blues have been swept aside by the rest of Aotearoa's Super Rugby teams has been depressing and hugely entertaining.

Their failures are reason to laugh and success is obviously celebrated. Either way, supporting the Blues is fun as long as you can laugh at yourself ... and the strange rugby team you support.

So here I am, about to embark on a journey of taking my support of the Blues to new levels. In all honesty this started when Tana Umaga was named as coach of the Blues, there's no other rugby figure who could pull a Blues fan back on board like Tana. Especially when he has guided the South Auckland powerhouse of Counties Manukau to success, why on Earth would I support the Chiefs though?

My starting point for my Auckland Blues Diary is a look at their roster and more specifically the group of backs who Umaga has picked to do the job this season. 

Halfbacks: Bryn Hall (North Harbour), Sam Nock (Northland), Billy Guyton (Tasman).

Inside backs: Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay) Matt McGahan (North Harbour), Piers Francis (Counties Manukau).

Midfield: George Moala (Auckland), Rene Ranger (North Harbour), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), TJ Faiane (Auckland) Male Sa'u, Michael Little (North Harbour).

Outside backs: Tevita Li (North Harbour), Ben Lam (Auckland), Melani Nanai (Auckland), Lolagi Visinia (Auckland), Matt Duffie (North Harbour), Jordan Trainor (Waikato).

What smacks me in the face first of all is the situation at first-five where Ihaia West will be fighting off Matt McGahan for the starting jersey. West is alright but he's still a bit behind the other young first-fives around Aotearoa like Marty McKenzie and Lima Sopoaga, let alone Beauden Barrett. McGahan returned from an mediocre stint with the Melbourne Storm and has been solid for North Harbour and the Blues last season, so it's safe to say that the Blues are without the marquee leader in the no.10 jersey that other teams have.

That doesn't fill me with confidence, especially given how young our backline is. Piers Francis is in the wider squad and could feature as a stable hand, similar to what Simon Hickey offered. How Hickey was allowed to waltz out of Auckland and head to France will forever boggle my mind, guess money talks.

Rene Ranger is one of my top-10 favourite rugby players ever so having him back in Auckland is great. Auckland don't lack powerful ball-carriers so it's Ranger's experience that is crucial to this Auckland side and how Ranger deals with that greater responsibility will be interesting.

I hope we see George Moala partner Ranger in the midfield for obvious reasons: they are both of a beastly nature. In typical Auckland style, this does offer up a few problems though as Ranger and Moala are effectively the same type of player and while having two dudes who can break the line is nice, most rugby teams have a beast and a skilled midfielder. 

The signing of Japan's Male Sa'u bolsters the midfield stocks, he's similar to all the other backs though. What Sa'u does have is years of top flight rugby to his name and international experience which is desperately needed, I just can't see him offering a point of difference.

We've got the beasts, but where's the guy who's gonna simply feed his outside men? Who's gonna kick from two passes off the ruck? This is weird, I know that it will be fun though.

My research suggests that Rieko Ioane has been named as a midfield option which could make sense as there's many options on the wing. I hope we get to see Ioane and TJ Faaine get plenty of game time somehow this season as they are the sort of players who can guide the Blues into a new era.

Also in typical Auckland style, there's a fair group of outside backs competing for a starting spot. Matt Duffie's move to the Blues from the Storm is extremely interesting as he had just returned from injury with the Storm and was in great form before announcing this move. 

Duffie has played a lot of rugby in his lifetime so I don't doubt his skills. I imagine he's eyeing up the fullback spot and he's got some fair competition there, the thing is though that all of this competition for outside back spots doesn't include any standout certainties. 

Lolagi Visinia is clearly talented and is well known for his exploits in Auckland club rugby while not quite performing consistently at Super Rugby level. Injuries and inconsistent selections have obviously hindered Visinia and this won't stop with Duffie and Visinia competing to start at fullback. This could lead to plenty of chopping and changing, clearly a detrimental ploy.

Tevita Li, Ben Lam and Melani Nanai are competing for two wing spots, with Li and Lam slightly ahead of Nanai in my mind. Lam and Nanai were super fun to watch in the ITM Cup for Auckland and Li's been an up and coming beast for a while now.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the halfback position isn't too different with Bryn Hall and Sam Nock competing for the starting jersey. Again, no standout veteran/certified star in this position. Hall has the edge here as he's been on the cusp for a years and has the speed/crisp passing to set the backs into motion while Northland's Nock will offer cover.

So how do I feel about the backs? Exactly the same way I feel about the Auckland Blues. 

There is so much excitement, entertainment, skill, speed, power and general funk in this group of backs that they'll offer plenty of highlights. To expect this backline to offer consistency and control however would be foolish as there's a lack of a dominant voice and experience that is a staple of other Super Rugby teams. 

I'm eager to see what they serve up even though I know that there will be many speed bumps on this road. Coach Umaga will try his hardest to guide a young group of backs, I just can't fight the feeling that I'll be extremely frustrated many times this season.