Blues 2017 Super Rugby Campaign Hinges on Umaga Self Belief

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In the last of the Super Rugby New Zealand franchise features, the focus moves to the most northern province. Three-time Champions, the Blues 2017 Super Rugby campaign holds as much promise as the others. The key for the Auckland side will be how second-year coach Tana Umaga can build-in self belief in his group.

Former All Blacks captain, Umaga will have sat back over the off-season, planning for an assault on the championship. His task will appear to be full of opportunity, with few losses of personnel–no retirements, no major defections this year that in reality, he has gained much. The most obvious gain being World Cup winning center Sonny Bill Williams.

In saying that, no one man is a guarantee. Sonny Bill will need to work with the established group to gain their confidence. That has been made difficult though, due to his injury. At the Olympic Games, he tore the Achilles Heel which takes a notoriously long time to recover from. Even if we see a super-fit looking Sonny Bill across social media, he will only join the group in April or May.

So for Umaga, the likes of George Moala, Piers Francis, Rene Ranger and new All Black Rieko Ioane (below) must demonstrate their game breaking ability.

If the Blues coaches can build-in that self belief early with good selection and formation, it will prove to be the best start possible. The early rounds will be a high-confidence building period. And who knows, on his return, the cross-code 31 year old Sonny Bill may find it hard to break into the [potentially] winning formula.

Blues 2017 Super Rugby Campaign Hinges on Umaga Self Belief

The midfield is a key area in rugby. One where much of the defense and attack is generated from. Often, the sides who can work best here, do very well. Although, the first five role must also be filled by a confident leader. For the Blues, Ihaia West is a man in his final year of ‘promising player’ status. Stay in limbo here any longer, he might be thrown on the heap with many other Blues number ten picks but a great NZ Maori campaign in 2016 will be West’s motivation to maintain his high standards.

For Umaga, his management team must demand many things from the full squad in 2017. Consistency, quality use of the ball, but to still hold that ‘Blues flair’. An important point-of-difference which must be used purposefully–provided the basics are done to a high standard. Dropped ball has always been a coach killer, as has been irresponsible kicking. West, along with Francis and the smart Matt Duffy will be integral to those goals.

On the other hand counter-attack has, and will always be, a versatile tool that can bring high rewards. Add to that a drilled set piece, on target place kicking and a more rounded game that should help the team go far in 2017. But it can’t all hinge on one position/one player.

Group Dynamic to the Forefront, but Individual Flair Still Key

Many sides put in controls, to limit players ability to react at will. It’s often due to unknown variables where players might go ‘off script’. In the past, the Blues have trumpeted that they held both those qualities in key team members. But fans have seen less evidence of that–only in small doses. Some players displayed it, but surely not ‘playing off the hip’ is an action hard to control. A very tough ask!

Umaga has been with the franchise for a season. Enough time to judge who has natural ability, and importantly who can be trusted to play on instinct. That self belief is the objective that he and the assistant coaches will be aiming to perfect this season. After the 12 month assessment, they will know more about players strengths this year.

As example, a new signing like Michael Collins could need to be given direction until he demonstrates that base standard. Whereas Ranger or Melani Nanai (pictured below) could be trusted to ‘play what is in front of them’. Not to say Collins or even the experienced Declan O’Donnell would not hold those skills, but it is a delicate balance.

Melani Nanai of the Blues makes a break during the round 15 Super Rugby match between the Hurricanes and the Blues at Westpac Stadium on July 2, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The same might apply to Augustine Pulu; brought in at the expense of former half back Bryn Hall. The former sevens star is “as quick as a hiccup,” in the words of Nigel Yalden. He showed that talent for Counties-Manukau when they beat Auckland in the provincial competition. Blues management can trust these men to bring that an unpredictable element–provided it brings success. Water runners can send messages down at stages of the game, even if they are supposed to only be there for hydration.

It might have taken a year for some to adjust to that change, adapt to the plan but Umaga must reinforce that self belief, if his group are to reach their goals.

Change, and Player Movements in Super Rugby

Additions to the scrum include Pauliasi Manu, Alex Hodgman, Brandon Nansen and Jimmy Tupou. Several experienced men, who can add high value. And one appears to have the captaincy mantle written all over him, with former Crusader Tupou leading the side in a pre-season clash two weeks ago.

They add to the list of stars in the pack. Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Northland talent Josh Goodhew, Kara Pryor and Matt Moran. Then add in All Blacks like Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu’ungafasi–that is a great resource for Umaga to have. And with little change to the group, they can promote the good understanding the side has built up. And The Blues would have banked on this group to carry on that pattern.

The comings and goings in Super Rugby are not always immediately known. One member of the 2017 squad who surprisingly chose for future change, is All Black Charlie Faumuina. His move to French rugby club Toulouse after this year will have upset Blues planning, but a pragmatic Blues/New Zealand Rugby accepted his decision.

“I’m looking forward to my last season in New Zealand, making it a successful one with the Blues.”

2017 – Time To Make Changes For Good

So the 86 cap prop will be hoping that he can share his knowledge developed over nine seasons, to help educate his fellow props. He will want to ‘give back’ and with the help of senior men like Parsons, Kaino, Ranger and West, the Blues have plans to go far in the competition.

That means a solid start is needed, steady development of the side over the year, building up to the first bye round in late April. Two key dates then appear in June. This includes the first ever Super Rugby match in Samoa, as they host the Queensland Reds in Apia. That will a huge occasion, followed hotly by the touring British and Irish Lions clash on Wednesday June 7. After those fixtures, the team go into International rugby hiatus until Super Rugby resumes.

That fixture will be another challenge, as they must travel up to Tokyo to face the Sunwolves. For many, a huge exertion of energy to close out the season, but those crucial points need to be added to ensure a good final summary of points. By the time July rolls around, the Blues must aim to be near the top of the New Zealand conference if they are to have a chance of securing a favourable finals series place.

Playoff Placing Key as All Franchise Partners Provide Substance

For most teams, their primary goal is the conference title. The top placed finishing conference side gains a crucial home advantage. Even with subtle changes to the format that theoretically might allow the sixth finishing side an chance of hosting a home semi final–even if possible, though that is a big ask.

To that end, accumulation of points is critical to the Blues chances. This includes winning by three tries or more, which will bring vital bonus points (BP). These were hard to come by in 2016: only gaining two BP from winning tries, and three losing BP. A poor total of 39 competition points [8 wins/1 draw/6 losses] really must be improved upon.

And another important factor that will help the Blues 2017 Super Rugby campaign are the franchise partners. The fellow unions are providing more substance in 2017. North Harbour leader Steve Jackson is now assistant coach, and his Mitre 10 Cup Championship winning team will bring plenty of top-class performers. Northland too have provided key men (Kara Pryor included) so the group as a whole is near to it’s highest peak–not seen since the days of 2003.

If the franchise, and the organization supporting it can also perform at 100%, then the changes made over 2016 will ultimately bring reward this season. Self belief is the key, and Tana Umaga is one to develop that for all his players.

2017 Blues squad –

Backs: Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, TJ Faiane, Billy Guyton, Rieko Ioane, Matt Vaega, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Sam Nock, Declan O’Donnell, Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu, Rene Ranger, Jordon Trainor, Ihaia West, Sonny Bill Williams, Piers Francis

Forwards: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Epalahame Faiva, Charlie Faumuina, Blake Gibson, Josh Goodhue, Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Matt Moulds, Brandon Nansen, James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Kara Pryor, Scott Scrafton, Murphy Taramai, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou and Ofa Tu’ungafasi.

The Blues will open the 2017 Super Rugby season. In a first, they face the Melbourne Rebels in a Thursday night clash, on February 23 at AAMI Park, Melbourne.

“Main photo credit”