Auckland Blues Diary - Duffman Returns

 Duffie, slightly scruffy, bowls like Daryl Tuffey, vampire slayer like Buffy

Duffie, slightly scruffy, bowls like Daryl Tuffey, vampire slayer like Buffy

There are two perspectives to take when pondering Matt Duffie's move from Melbourne to Auckland, leaving the Storm and the NRL, opting to join the revoltion with the Blues. Duffie had only just come back from a mammoth stint on the sidelines via numerous injuries and slid right back into gear with the Storm, scoring and setting up tries with his aerial ability while also relishing the physicality required of NRL wingers these days.

The Storm had invested a lot in Duffie since snapping him up before he finished school in Auckland and Duffie was leaving just as he was about to repay that faith. This wasn't a case of Duffie doing the Storm dirty though as Duffie only signed a one-year extension in 2014 for the 2015 season meaning Duffie was off-contract for 2016. This and the fact that the Storm are one of, if not the best at developing young talent and while Duffie's spot could be taken by a number of young wingers, funnily enough it could be Suliasi Vunivalu, also a former schoolboy rugby star with Saint Kentigern college, who forms an all-Fijian wing combo.

Duffie's departure from the Storm felt right as Duffie had a rugby itch to scratch, the Blues needed a young but experienced lad and the Storm have a contingent of youngsters waiting for an opportunity. While the Storm had lost a player who could have taken over from the big-three, the Blues said 'haere mai' to a player who is entering his prime years both as an athlete and a person.

Trying to explore 'culture' issues at the Blues is like trying to pinpoint similar issues with the NZ Warriors or even our young footballers, as highlighted by All Whites coach Anthony Hudson. Without pointing fingers, something smelt funky with the Blues and now we're embarking on a new adventure with Tana Umaga as the coach, Umaga who snapped up Duffie as one of his earliest and biggest signings. 

Duffie's code-hopping move isn't as a story as it would have been in previous years, especially not when other youngsters like Ngani Laumape and Glen Fisi'ahi made the same league to union jump as Duffie at a similar time. There's far more familiarity between the two codes than ever before and even the staunchest union fan would appreciate the Storm's 'culture' as they are arguably the best NRL club of the past decade (even with the salary cap dramas, the Storm have stuck around near the top of the NRL). Young rugby players, like those at the Blues will be fully aware of Duffie's standing with the Storm and the experience he offers, which is especially funky as Duffie is only 25-years-old.

Duffie was a fullback in his schoolboy rugby days and he should have the inside running for the starting fullback spot for the Blues. Lolagi Visinia might have something to say about that which offers healthy competition and you'd have to imagine that Duffie has been tasked with passing on some of his experience and knowledge gained at the Storm to Visinia as well. 

As a natural athlete, the sort of bloke who glides across the park with far too much ease, Duffie's best asset is his running ability. What stood out in the NRL though was Duffie's wizardry in the air thanks to his background in AFL footy (enhanced by living in Melbourne), this combination of being a gun runner of the footy and being one of the best aerial players in Super Rugby will give the Blues an interesting point of difference. 

Defusing high, contestable kicks will be Duffie's bread and butter, from which he will devour the opportunity to run at a scattered defence. Obviously this applies to the Blues attack as well with Duffie likely to be used as a weapon, competing for the ball in the air from a high kick from Ihaia West (/anyone else). The Blues don't boast experienced 'job-doers' in their backline but they do have a crop of exceptionally talented free spirits and the aerial ability of Duffie will allow these backs the best chance to run with more time and space, while defences are scampering to set up.

NRL wingers don't do a whole lot of kicking, besides the hook-kick back infield for the support players and this is where Duffie will face his biggest challenge in Super Rugby. Opposing teams might kick long, ensure that their kick-chase is is on-point and pressure Duffie to kick, something which you would expect the likes of the Chief and Highlanders to really target. 

Duffie does have that AFL and union background though which will ensure that he's no mug with the boot. How Duffie's kicking game develops will be interesting over the Super Rugby season as there's also Matt McGahan - also a former Storm Under 20s player - who will be sniffing for an opportunity and has a first-five/fullback, McGahan could offer a more well-rounded game than Duffie.

Those who have seen Duffie's athletic antics at any level will be confident that he can have a notable impact on the Blues this season, even if it is his first season back in rugby since leaving it for Melbourne back in 2009. This Diary is about following the journey as the Blues look to re-establish themselves in the upper echelon of kiwi rugby and following Duffie's progress is already one of my favourite narratives.