Super Rugby Transtasman: Leon MacDonald reveals personal significance of Blues title
Three years ago Leon MacDonald made the bold decision to uproot his family, including four children, to assume the poisoned chalice that was the Blues.
Born and raised in Blenheim, having played over 100 games for the Crusaders and coached there as an assistant to Scott Robertson, joining the Blues was a high risk move that jarred with MacDonald’s roots.
As the vast majority of previous Blues head coaches will attest, being the front man for the Auckland franchise is not an easy ride. More often than not you are the lightning rod for blame.
Even earlier this year, after winning their opening two matches and then failing to reach the Aotearoa final, the Blues continued their seemingly inherent genes of flattering to deceive.
Same old, same old, it seemed.
Yet on Saturday night at Eden Park, with 36,000 expectant fans watching on, the Blues finally broke their 18-year title drought by coming from behind in the final 10 minutes to defeat the Highlanders and claim the transtasman trophy.
As he prepares to extend his contract with the Blues, MacDonald explained the personal significance the watershed success held and how it justified his switch in allegiance.
“This means a huge amount to me because shifting the family to Auckland, away from what we knew, to put myself out there in an environment I’m not familiar with in terms of risk it was right up there,” MacDonald said.
“When I see the boys’ faces out there – there’s a few who have been around this club for a long time and seen a lot of pain – it meant so much to them.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful but when I was with the Crusaders we nearly expected to win a title whereas here this is huge for us. You feel like it’s changing lives and achieving stuff our players have only dreamed of in the past. That’s more than enough motivation for me.”
Claiming the Transtasman title carries special significance for others, too, notably four figures who have played their final matches for the Blues.
MacDonald confirmed influential first five-eighth Otere Black, long-serving second-five TJ Faiane and dedicated lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti are heading to Japan. Loose forward Blake Gibson, who scored the crucial 76th minute try, is shifting to another New Zealand team believed to be the Hurricanes.
Despite those deflections next year’s roster is almost full, with Beauden Barrett returning from his Japanese sabbatical and Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck switching codes.
Barrett’s inclusion at No 10 will only enhance the Blues attacking potency and decision-making and while history suggests Tuivasa-Sheck’s transition will take time to bed in, especially given he will bounce between positions, his professionalism is sure to shine.
“Roger played midfield at school and plays in the outside backs in league,” MacDonald said. “We’d be foolish to make a call on that now he hasn’t even donned a rugby jersey yet. We’ve got to get him out of a Warriors jersey first.
“We’re hoping to see him a little bit in provincial rugby later on in the year. They’ll ease him back in and we share a building with Auckland so we’ll be around to help navigate through the learning of the game. It’s really just feeling it out.
“We’ve got the ability to change positions. Rieko Ioane can play midfield and wing. Roger could play on the wing, midfield or fullback. It’s really what works out in the end.”
MacDonald deserves credit for the change he has driven since arriving at the Blues. He targeted improved fitness levels, game-management, leadership and demanding training standards.
With 20-year-old fullback Zarn Sullivan’s injection a major factor in improvement from the Aotearoa to transtasman competition, and teenage prodigy Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens emerging through the ranks, the future is bright for the Blues.
“One of the things we’ve focused on is being challenging of each other. We’ve got young Zarn challenging Rieko to be better and putting the heat on him. Those small things have been part of the Crusaders for decades and it’s starting to appear in our game. We’re really proud of those small things, the unseen things, that are starting to appear in our group.”
On and off the pitch the foundations are there for the Blues to challenge the Crusaders for New Zealand and Super Rugby supremacy. The talent-laden squad is there and a near sellout crowd for the final boosts coffers, taking the Blues from survival mode to a place of financial stability.
Blues chief executive Andrew Hore hopes this triumph is merely the start of what’s to come.
“People aren’t seeing us as the finished article within and that’s the exciting part,” Hore said. “We’ve got to enjoy the moment and then get our feet back on the ground.”
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