It’s far too early in the season to think fate is once again against him and the Blues, but Leon MacDonald may have cause to wonder given the news wing Rieko Ioane – probably his side’s best performer in their defeat to the Chiefs – faces a long layoff due to a broken hand.
Coaches are generally relentlessly optimistic people, and MacDonald is almost certainly one of those – after all the former Crusaders fullback and assistant coach chose to join a franchise which last won a Super Rugby title in 2003 and made the playoffs in 2011, but his All Black’s injury after a stunning two-try performance in the 37-29 defeat at Eden Park is a massive blow.
Ioane, 22, has arrived at the Blues in excellent physical condition – he revealed he has dropped his weight a little in order to find more mobility – and he showed during his 56 minutes against the Chiefs that he will once again be a key attacking weapon for MacDonald’s side as he attempts to force his way back into the All Blacks starting mix.
It was Ioane’s 50th match for the Blues – afterwards his brother Akira presented him with an official keepsake – and there was no hint of the news that broke via the Blues today, news that unfortunately comes on top of a season-ending knee injury for hooker Ray Niuia and a calf strain for prop Alex Hodgman.
“To be able to do that in his 50th game, I’m pleased for him,” MacDonald said of Ioane’s performance straight afterwards. “I’m pleased he could do it in front of his friends and family. He’s a really passionate Blues man and I think his performance showed that today; he gave it everything.”
He won’t be in a position to do that again for presumably six weeks. The Blues play the Waratahs in Newcastle on Saturday and straight away MacDonald has been forced to re-shuffle his side. Six days later the formidable Crusaders visit Eden Park.
Another potential absentee this week is flanker Tony Lamborn, who scored a try in an impressive debut for the Blues but has an infected cut on his head.
The cut, suffered in the narrow pre-season win over the Hurricanes at Onewa Domain on January 24, needed seven stitches but unfortunately for Lamborn, who didn’t train today, that hasn’t been the end of it and MacDonald may opt to start Blake Gibson instead.
Hooker and former skipper James Parsons is close to a return from a back injury and first-five Otere Black could be available after suffering a rib injury in pre-season. Halfback and former Hurricane Finlay Christie may be close to full fitness following a neck problem – a helpful addition given the lack of direction and errors that hampered the Blues throughout their defeat, particularly in the second half during which they shipped 32 points.
None of those players make up for the loss of Ioane, however.
Should MacDonald keep faith in fullback Matt Duffie and right wing Mark Telea, Jordan Hyland could come into the mix as Ioane’s replacement against a Waratahs side who showed despite a 43-25 defeat to the Crusaders in Nelson in round one that they have pace and talent among their outside backs.
Left wing Mark Nawaqanitawase, 19, scored two tries against the Crusaders in his Super Rugby debut and is already being announced across the ditch as one of a handful of youngsters who could “save Australian rugby”.
That’s pressure their new coach Rob Penney would probably rather Nawaqanitawase do without but his side played with a structure and maturity in spite of their round one loss that suggest they could be one of the better Australian sides this season. They will certainly test the Blues.