It was as if it was written in the stars.
Today, the 21st June, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s masterful album Blue, rated third in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2020 list of top 500 albums of all time, behind only Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On? and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Having spent decades prepared to die on a hill proclaiming Mitchell’s subsequent album For the Roses superior, I’ve gradually come around to Blue, comprehending how the whole transcends what is a collection of great individual tracks. Another indicator is the brilliance of the cover versions it spawned; among the notables, Holly Cole’s ‘River’, I’m With Her’s ‘Carey’ and, in 2000, Mitchell’s own symphonic reinterpretation of ‘A Case of You’.
It’s not 50 years since the Blues were a decent rugby side, although for long-suffering fans, the 18 years since their last Super Rugby triumph must have felt like all of that and more.
They need suffer no longer. Saturday’s 23-15 triumph, in what was an excellent final, not only goes a long way to exorcising past demons, but the manner of their march through Super Rugby Trans-Tasman suggests that a sound foundation has been laid for continued success in coming seasons.
After the Blues fell away at the tail end of Super Rugby Aotearoa, coach Leon McDonald made no secret of how this competition would be their pathway to redemption. How satisfying then, that a side so often criticised for never managing to be more than the sum of its star players, counted among its best the unheralded trio of hooker Kurt Eklund, halfback Finlay Christie and replacement back Harry Plummer.
After five weeks of watching sides run themselves giddy chasing try-scoring bonus points, the Test-match intensity and attritional nature of the final took some getting used to, but was wholly refreshing. It also underlined what an unusual competition this has been.
Both sides knuckled down in defence, competed hard at the lineout and kicked judiciously for position, none better than ice-cool youngster Zarn Sullivan.
Both sides also got value from their counter-ruck, with little man Christie, on multiple occasions, acting as a fourth loose forward for the Blues on the cleanout and forage. Yet despite what felt like overwhelming first-half dominance, 13-6 was by no means a winning score.
Staying in the fight courtesy of some high-quality exit kicking and scrambling defence, the Highlanders upped the tempo after halftime, edging ahead 15-13 with quarter of an hour left, leaving everyone on the edge of their seats. But it was Plummer who seized the moment for the home side, drilling a penalty goal from near the sideline to reclaim the lead at 16-15, and in doing so, changing the dynamic entering a tense final ten minutes.
It was another counter-ruck in the 76th minute that proved the crucial play, Hoskins Sotutu and Blake Gibson taking full advantage for the Blues’ second try before Plummer iced the title with another superb kick.
Skipper Patrick Tuipolotu stood tall afterwards, not rushing to join excited teammates, but instead consoling his opponents, who may have reflected on how their period of dominance coincided with his being off the field, and how unlucky they were that Josh Goodhue was deemed to have suffered concussion of the ribs, thus allowing Tuipolotu to return as a replacement.
Despite the truncated and distorted nature of the competition, with the Crusaders denied a place in the final despite being undefeated, only the churlish would deny the Blues their return to the winners’ stage. But with the monkey now off their back, and some handy recruits lined up for next season, if the Blues keep winning – and they certainly have improvement left in them – I wonder how long it will be before that kind of goodwill wears thin?
If you’ll excuse another musical reference, anyone watching Deva Mahal perform the pre-match national anthem, wondering why she was a cut above the norm, might like to check out not only her own album Run Deep, but performances alongside her father, legendary bluesman Taj Mahal and the timeless Boz Scaggs, the 2003 concert at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, an impeccable addition to her CV.
There was a strong Blues connection to England’s premiership semi-finals, where Pat Lam’s Bristol, with Steven Luatua and John Afoa on board, gave up a 28-0 lead to lose 43-36 in remarkable fashion, to a Harlequins side containing not only the gifted Marcus Smith, but recent Blues centre, Joe Marchant.
They will face a tough task in the final against the seasoned Exeter, 40-30 winners over Sale. 21 tries in two semi-finals spoke to a continuation of the bright, but still combative rugby seen all season; which is what can happen when lawmakers, referees, coaches and players all sing from the same hymn sheet.
Note the Australian connection too – Luke Morahan and Louis Lynagh both on the scoresheet, with Ben Tapuai joining Lynagh next week on the big stage at Twickenham.
With local focus shifting to the Wallabies’ upcoming series against France, there remains the critical matter of Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby agreeing to a competition format for next year and beyond, that satisfies a range of conflicting desires and necessities.
As if this wasn’t important enough, confirmation this week of South Africa further embedding itself into the fabric of northern hemisphere rugby – consolidating an already pronounced financial disparity with their increasingly in name only, SANZAAR partners – highlights the need to get things right.
That’s no easy task, given the existing on-field performance gulf, which informs each country’s viewpoint.
A full trans-Tasman competition is popular with New Zealand franchises and coaches, because every rugby player loves going on tour, as long as it isn’t too far and for too long. Australia also provides a welcome ebb to the high-level intensity faced in the New Zealand derby matches.
Captains and coaches always take care to couch such comments so as not to insult or slight Australia, but as genuine as that may be, everyone knows how, for the most part, matches against Australian franchises aren’t as intense or physically taxing.
Six weeks ago, Rugby Australia and its new broadcaster were so emboldened by the success of Super Rugby AU they may well have dug in, to ensure that greater weighting was given to the domestic piece at the expense of a full trans-Tasman competition.
But two wins and 23 losses later there is the triple realisation that hiding away under one’s bed is no solution, a professional domestic competition to help develop players is and a Mickey Mouse five-week cross-over isn’t actually a proper, sustainable competition.
The potential addition of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua adds scheduling complexity, cost and an immediate attack on the prospect of a new Blues dynasty. On the other hand, with fan sentiment overwhelmingly in favour, this might just be the authentic, identity-making, circuit breaker Super Rugby has long needed.
Further, with the flow of coaches and players to Japan only increasing, and with seasons largely aligning, there is no better time than now to shift heaven and earth to bolt-on Japanese participation in a post-season finale, in conjunction with admission to the Rugby Championships.
No one is pretending this is easily done, but if Australia and New Zealand are to avoid running the isolation gauntlet, the days of Japan rugby being associated with words like ‘potential’ and ‘the future’ must be over. The future is now.
The trouble is, the past is also now, and the spectre that has hung over Australian rugby since the advent of professionalism – failing to find compatibility between a domestic and regional rugby solution – is as acutely relevant today as it ever was.
The timing and nature of New Zealand’s internal squabble over the proposed equity investment is also no help. One, because no amount of money is going buy a pathway out of isolation, and two, because this is no time to be fractured and disunified.
Positions are genuinely held, and if player’s bosses David Kirk and Rob Nicol believe that there are better financing options than Silver Lake, that is entirely their prerogative. But is being the financial guardian of New Zealand rugby really the role of the players?
After all, it’s difficult to imagine CEO Mark Robinson wandering onto the pitch at an injury break 20 minutes into a Bledisloe Cup match, tapping Codie Taylor on the shoulder and telling him to sit down on the bench, because “mate, I don’t think you’re throwing is up to scratch any more, and I’d like to see Samisoni Taukei’aho have a run instead.”
Unlikely? Well, perhaps as unlikely as a bunch of ex-captains deciding who should be running Australian Rugby. It’s old-fashioned I know, but the notion of administrators running the game, coaches picking the team and the players concentrating on playing is surely still well-founded.
For now, despite the flaws of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, let’s not downplay the achievement of the Blues, nor the efforts of administrators on both sides of the Tasman to deliver rugby in what have been extremely challenging circumstances.
There is living proof that, in many respects, the game has never been in better hands. But those feel-goods are already history. Today’s challenges around finances, grassroots participation and, in Australia, high performance, have never been greater.
This feels like a critical juncture for rugby in our region. I’m betting that Joni Mitchell’s Blue will still be admired and enjoyed in another 50 years’ time. What odds people are thinking the same thing about Super Rugby?