Throughout The Blues' recent struggles, questioning their talent identification and recruitment has been a constant. Auckland has the biggest pool of players with the most talent, whether it's in premier club rugby or First XV rugby which are both the best competition in the country, so how could they be so average?
This only intensifies when people see Malakai Fekitoa running around with the Highlanders, Fekitoa has become somewhat of the poster-boy for Auckland's talent drain. However, Fekitoa is certainly not alone in playing great footy with a Super Rugby franchise not named The Blues as the tentacles of Auckland have slithered their way throughout Aotearoa.
Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes) and Jordan Taufua (Crusaders) started the Super Rugby season hot, providing a dynamic physical presence to their respective teams. At one stage, Fifita and Taufua were the form forwards of Super Rugby, doing so having both gone to school in Auckland. Fifita went to Tamaki College and Taufua went to Sacred Heart, neither are alone in their franchises as Aucklanders.
The Crusaders have wisely enjoyed the rise of Counties Manukau rugby. This is where we encounter the first little bit of funk as Counties is of course part of the Chiefs region and while the home of Counties rugby is in Pukekohe (kinda part of Auckland depending on who you ask), Counties also includes Manukau which is South Auckland. We all know how much talent is in South Auckland and as Papatoetoe is the southern-most club in Auckland, any club/player south of Papatoetoe (or any player looking for a sniff of an opportunity) can easily head down the Counties Manukau route.
This is a slept on trend in kiwi rugby as players who aren't getting any chance in Auckland (reasons - talent/politics/throwing shade) have opted to join a club playing in the Counties Manukau premier club rugby competition. This presents a different pathway, perhaps a better pathway than battling away with little reward in Auckland.
Counties Manukau have seen a constant wave of players graduating from Counties to Super Rugby and they aren't playing for Auckland. Taufua is joined by Jimmy Tupou (Pukekohe High School), who the Crusaders have noted as a future leader as well as outside back Sione Fifita who joined the Crusaders from Counties this season.
Further/brief research suggests that the Hurricanes haven't gone down the Counties route, they've picked up players like Fekitoa who Auckland apparently didn't want. Fifita made his debut for Wellington Lions in 2013 so he's been around for a wee while, backs Vince Aso and Peta Ahki have recently been snapped up by Wellington. Aso went to St Peters College in Auckland and had played a few games for Auckland but was unable to crack The Blues and he's now enjoying life in Wellington. Ahki is a former Kelston Boys student and had gained game time with The Blues, greener pastures and greater opportunities led to him moving to Wellington.
The Hurricanes have enjoyed the services of Michael Fatialofa, who is in the midst of a breakout Super Rugby season which is a nice reward for his toil in domestic rugby. The former Mount Albert Grammar student's story is similar to a number of other Aucklanders as he ventured deep down south, playing a few seasons with Southland before getting a run with the Hurricanes.
The Chiefs obviously have a few connections to Auckland as they have first dibs on Counties Manukau's players. Augustine Pulu and Sam Vaka have come up through Counties while Pauliasi Manu moved from the Blues down to Counties for a run with the Chiefs. Taleni Seu had played for Auckland before being snapped up by the Chiefs. Nepo Laulala has the Wesley College link and Mitchell Karpik, Seta Tamanivalu and Shaun Stevenson play First XV rugby in Auckland.
A swift look at this will result in many crying out that The Blues have clearly made mistakes in their player recruitment/development. I don't think it's that simple though and it's a similar case to the NZ Warriors as you can only keep so many players or you can only provide development opportunities to so many players ... or Auckland have no say in the matter because players like Taufua and Tupou were recruited exceptionally well by the Crusaders from Counties.
I don't view it as a positive or negative for the Blues, I'm just happy that other franchises are giving players a run thanks to their increased/more professional efforts in recruitment.