MacDonald heads north to the Blues
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.