MacDon­ald heads north to the Blues

The Press - - Sport - An­drew Vo­er­man an­drew.vo­er­man@stuff.co.nz

The last time the Blues won Su­per Rugby, Leon MacDon­ald was play­ing full­back – for the op­po­si­tion.

That was 2003, when the Blues pipped the Cru­saders in the de­cider at Eden Park. Fif­teen years on, he has just be­come the lat­est in a long line of coaches tasked with get­ting the Auck­land­based fran­chise back to the top.

MacDon­ald has signed on for three years as an as­sis­tant, start­ing in 2019, the first of which will be un­der head coach Tana Umaga, who has been given a one-year ex­ten­sion, de­spite the Blues sit­ting last in the New Zealand con­fer­ence with three wins in 11 matches in 2018.

The Blues and Cru­saders formed Su­per Rugby’s first ma­jor ri­valry, though that has changed in re­cent years, with the Auck­lan­ders be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant, miss­ing the play­offs in 12 of the 14 com­pleted sea­sons since their 2003 tri­umph, in­clud­ing each of the last seven.

That made it a lit­tle bit odd to see MacDon­ald at Blues HQ, wear­ing their logo on his chest, though that is part and par­cel of the mod­ern game.

He said that as a Cru­sader, he could re­mem­ber the suc­cess­ful Blues teams well, and was look­ing for­ward to the chal­lenge of help­ing make them win­ners once again.

‘‘The Blues teams that we en­coun­tered were phys­i­cal and they were abra­sive and they were nearly im­pos­si­ble to beat at home. I’ve seen what the Blues can be like and it’s fresh in my mem­ory, so to be sit­ting in­side this room is a lit­tle bit sur­real to a de­gree, but it only takes one day to start rub­bing shoul­ders and you be­come re­ally pas­sion­ate about your team and I’m look­ing for­ward to meet­ing the play­ers here.

‘‘I can’t wait to be in­volved in coach­ing a team at Eden Park as the home ground.’’

An as­sis­tant be­ing con­tracted longer than a head coach is not

en­tirely un­heard of, but the im­pli­ca­tion is clear – MacDon­ald could very well be in line to take over if the Blues’ run of miss­ing the play­offs con­tin­ues into 2019, and Umaga doesn’t re­ceive an­other ex­ten­sion.

‘‘This is a re­sults-driven in­dus­try that we’re in,’’ Umaga said yes­ter­day.

‘‘Let’s not get away from that. I un­der­stand that to­tally. At face value, our re­sults haven’t been where we’ve wanted them, and the chal­lenge that’s brought Leon here, that’s the chal­lenge that brought me here, and I want to make sure I can live up to that chal­lenge.

‘‘I’ve got 12 months to show that I have that abil­ity.’’

The Blues have won 18 of their 44 matches since Umaga was in­stalled ahead of the 2016 sea­son, but only one against an­other New Zealand team, with 15 losses and a draw in their other 16 all-Kiwi matches.

A lengthy in­jury list has taken its toll this sea­son, which has played a part in the Blues not kick­ing on from last year’s ninth­place fin­ish, and Umaga is con­vinced he can re­turn them to the play­offs in the year he has been given.

‘‘I think we’ve got a lot of good things in place now. There’s cir­cum­stances and things that are out of your con­trol that do im­pact on per­for­mance and the way things are go­ing. We’ve just got to get through that, it’s the same for every­one at this level.’’

MacDon­ald will move north once he coaches Tas­man for the fi­nal time in this year’s Na­tional Pro­vin­cial Cham­pi­onship. He was last in­volved in Su­per Rugby last sea­son, as at­tack coach for the ti­tle-win­ning Cru­saders, the role he will take on at the Blues.

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