The Blues have pulled off a major coaching coup by recruiting Joe Schmidt to the franchise from next year.
Schmidt previously held an assistant coaching role with the Blues from 2005-07 before heading north where he helped Clermont Auvergne claim their first French Top 14 crown, led Leinster to two Heineken Cup titles and guided Ireland from 2013-19, a period which included two victories over the All Blacks.
Considered one of the most analytically astute rugby minds, Schmidt will be a hugely valuable sounding board for head coach Leon MacDonald.
Since finishing with Ireland after the 2019 World Cup Schmidt served as World Rugby's director of rugby and high performance. His return to the Blues will complete a full circle journey.
That will be true, too, for Auckland NPC defence coach Craig McGrath who will be stepping up to join the Blues as defence coach for the Super Rugby Pacific campaign. McGrath, who played for the Blues as a replacement halfback during Schmidt's time there, will retain his role with the NPC team.
McGrath had a stint as a player-coach in Ireland after playing in Italy, before switching full-time to coaching. He was an assistant coach with the Melbourne Rebels for four seasons and then with the Honda Heat in Japan for three years, joining the Auckland NPC coaching staff with responsibility for defence and skills development last year.
The additions to the coaching staff follow Tana Umaga stepping down as defence coach to focus on his family business after the Blues' successful 2021 season.
"I'm really looking forward to coming back and helping out the coaching staff at the Blues. I know pretty much the whole crew and it's a nice fit stepping in for Tana, who I greatly respect," Schmidt said.
"I have really enjoyed getting to know Leon. He is doing a great job and has got the team in a really good place after their success this year. I've also got a lot of time for Ice [McGrath] and look forward to linking up with him again."
Blues chief executive Andrew Hore says bringing McGrath into the Blues environment will continue to develop Umaga's work, while Schmidt's addition gives the coaching team access to a vast bank of knowledge and experience that will help all the coaches.
"Our strategic plan is clear. We need to develop success for today and develop success for tomorrow," Hore said.
"In this role, Joe will be able to support Leon and also Craig, as our new defence coach, given Joe's own expertise as a defence coach over many years. It is an ideal blend of youth and experience, and we are rapt to be able to have both join our camp."
MacDonald says the additions will strengthen the coaching team and sees an evolution of his own dialogue and relationship with Schmidt.
"Joe has been mentoring me the last 12 months, which has been incredibly helpful. Having him as part of the coaching team will give us a different voice in the mix and he can also look at things through a different lens and really challenge us."
Adding McGrath as defence coach is also part of future-proofing the Blues.
"Craig brings that fresh approach and adds to the group of young coaches we have here now, who we are really keen to develop and grow as part of building strong foundations for ongoing success," MacDonald said.
For his part, McGrath remembers getting coaching notes from Schmidt after his first week of training with the Blues and says it gave him an insight into what was required at the professional level.
"I'm really grateful to the Blues, Auckland and to Leon for this opportunity – and having Joe involved means I get the opportunity to have access to all his experience, especially in defence, and get world-class professional development every day," McGrath said.
He also sees the appointment as closing a loop.
"Having been a player and then in my work with Honda we had an association with the Blues, so it was always at the back of mind that I wanted to come back to Auckland and the Blues at some stage."
Both coaches will take up their new roles in the coming weeks as the Blues move into pre-season training ahead of the new Super Rugby Pacific 2022 season.