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Fire starter

Patrick McKendry

Such was Finlay Christie’s influence at the Blues last season that the little halfback forced himself into the reckoning for higher honours.

Beginning with a neck injury that kept him on the sidelines for several months after arriving from the Hurricanes, Christie began his Blues career in June with three games on the reserves bench before making his first start in the defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch and staying there for the remainder of the season.

The quickness of his hands, feet and mind were a game-changer for the Blues, who already had two physically combative halfbacks in the form of Jonathan Ruru and Sam Nock. 

The red-haired Christie brought something different – speed – and it was a spark which kept a rejuvenated Blues firing to their best season since 2011. Looking vastly improved before Covid struck, they finished second behind the Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and while everyone was denied a grandstand finish to the season when the Blues v Crusaders showdown at Eden Park in August was cancelled due to a second lockdown, there was enough evidence to suggest the Blues were finally back and that in Christie they had a halfback similarly going places.

Finlay Christie debuted for the Blues in the epic clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch in 2020. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Accordingly, he started in the No9 jersey for the South in their dramatic victory over the North in Wellington in September, a game memorable for the sheer quality of rugby and fullback Will Jordan’s memorable match-winning try after the final hooter.

Those higher honours for Christie, though, were probably more likely to have come in the blue of Scotland than the black of New Zealand because Christie, born in Scotland before moving to New Zealand with his parents when aged seven, was set to move to the United Kingdom to play club rugby this year.

He had signed a two-year deal with the Blues after shifting from the Hurricanes, where he struggled to get game time due to the presence of TJ Perenara. A future in the United Kingdom beckoned in 2021, but Covid forced a re-think. Instead, Christie has signed for another year at the Blues and it could be a decision that pushes him further towards a black jersey than a blue one.

Those higher honours for Christie, though, were probably more likely to have come in the blue of Scotland than the black of New Zealand because Christie, born in Scotland before moving to New Zealand with his parents when aged seven, was set to move to the United Kingdom to play club rugby this year.

“With what’s going on over there at the moment I thought it wouldn’t be wise to change to go over and play club rugby at this stage of my career,” Christie tells The XV after a training run with the Blues on another scorching summer morning in Auckland. “I’m going to stick around here for another year. That was the deciding factor; with the Covid … you hear about clubs making budget cuts and with the potential of not getting paid… I thought it was best for me to stay here.”

He confirmed he had received word of interest from Scotland via his agent.

Christie made his decision to stay another year at the Blues during last year’s Mitre 10 competition – he helped lead Tasman to a thrilling 13-12 final victory over an Auckland team which included several of his Blues teammates at Eden Park.

“We were pretty massive underdogs in that final and so it was good to get one over them. A few of the boys are from Auckland here so we’ve got bragging rights for a wee bit.”

So now it’s entirely possible that the 25-year-old may enter All Blacks coach Ian Foster’s thoughts for the 2023 World Cup. It’s possible because incumbent Aaron Smith is 32 and while he shows no signs of slowing down and nothing to suggest he won’t make it to France, Christie offers a point of difference to Smith’s current back-up Perenara.

The All Blacks took used three halfbacks in 2019 and 2020. TJ Perenara, at 29, is the youngest. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Perenara, who will miss this Super Rugby season due to a short sabbatical in Japan, is capable of the extraordinary – his try against Namibia in the 2019 World Cup was adjudged as World Rugby’s try of the year – and he has made many more significant interventions in a black jersey. And yet, the gap between Smith and the 29-year-old Perenara has probably never been greater. Moreover, the Hurricanes player is a good man to bring on when the All Blacks are looking for physicality in closing out a game, but he can’t replicate Smith’s pace or ability to set the agenda from the start of a test.

Brad Weber has the pace at least but the Chiefs player again struggled for game time for the All Blacks last year (in an admittedly truncated test calendar). 

It may be that Christie, notable last year for his relentlessness in going from breakdown to breakdown, is poised to time his run perfectly, although 22-year-old Highlander Folau Fakatava may have something to say about that. Regardless, Christie’s notable role in the North v South match shows how highly rated he is by the national selectors.

“I always say that you have to prove yourself through each level first and by no means am I ready to play international footy,” Christie says. “I have to prove myself at Super this year. I only played seven-odd games last year – hopefully I’ll keep that form and build on it this year.”

For Christie right now there are similarities to last year because his neck issue returned during the Mitre 10 Cup and it required a cortisone injection just after New Year. But he’s back in contact training and expects to be fit for the Blues’ pre-season matches and first game proper against the Hurricanes in Wellington on February 27.

I always say that you have to prove yourself through each level first and by no means am I ready to play international footy.

Finlay Christie on what 2021 holds

“I felt like I grew into it as I got more confident,” he said of his progression last year. “Obviously it takes game time for you to grow that confidence. A lot of the boys were quite new to me, it being my first year. I felt like I went all right… by the end of it I was having a lot of fun and playing some pretty good footy.

“The main thing was an opportunity to get game time up here – that was the reason for the shift. I managed to push my way in and get a bit of that. It was quite different – obviously playing with different players and different coaches and shapes within the team.”

Head coach Leon MacDonald was familiar to Christie, however, and another big reason why he made the shift north. MacDonald was a big influence on Christie at Tasman before taking the top job at the Blues and built the Mako with workrate and connectivity between players non negotiables in terms of his vision. 

“Obviously being under him at Tasman for the first couple of years and knowing what he is like as a coach made the shift easier. And what he brings to the team. That was top of the list.

Christie has accrued a half-century of caps for Tasman to date – and won two Mitre 10 Cup Premierships with the Mako on the trot. (Photo by Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

“Every coach has unique ways of doing things… you can see [MacDonald’s influence] in the shape we play, and the plays he comes up with. He’s a smart coach and there are quite a lot of similarities [between the Blues and Tasman]. 

“He’s a massive believer in the culture part of things – not only in the team but in the organisation as a whole. He’s been pushing that the last couple of years. You can really see the boys bonding and getting to know everyone including those [staff] on the front desk.”

Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical in Japan this year means Christie will likely be mainly passing to either Otere Black or Stephen Perofeta, the two No10s currently at the front of the queue for the Blues. Of the two, it’s likely Black will get the nod, especially early in the season. He was consistently good last year, a rich vein of form which kept Barrett at fullback initially.

He’s a massive believer in the culture part of things – not only in the team but in the organisation as a whole. He’s been pushing that the last couple of years.

Christie on Blues coach Leon MacDonald

“They’ve both been training bloody well and obviously Otesy played some good footy last year,” Christie says. “Unfortunately Stevie was injured. They’re both fit and ready to go. There are some good options for the coaches.”

Christie, who attended St Kentigern’s College in Auckland before moving to Christchurch to study at the University of Canterbury, made his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs in 2017 before moving to the Hurricanes for two seasons. He’s clearly not afraid of travelling if the move seems right for him, but now back in Auckland nearer his family, Christie wants to build on his development of last year and see where the next two years get him. Not surprisingly, being in New Zealand, a relative oasis as the Covid pandemic rages around the world, seems like a good option right now.

His debut for the Blues came in their Super Rugby Aotearoa opener against the Hurricanes on a warm June afternoon in front of more than 42,000 at Eden Park, many of whom came to see Beauden Barrett playing for the home side against his former team. It will be a memory that stays with Christie for a long time.

Finlay Christie could find himself going head to head with Brad Weber for an All Blacks jersey in 2021. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“It’s hard to go past that first round at a packed Eden Park,” he says, when asked about a highlight from last year. “That, along with being the first sport to play in the world, pretty much, after Covid. It was a pretty exciting day playing in front of 40,000 people at Eden Park. A lot of people will remember that for a while – not only the players but the fans themselves.”

At about 82kg, Christie admits he’s one of the smallest in the Blues squad. 

“I’d be pretty close to it, yeah.” 

Asked if his parents worried about his physical wellbeing when playing among the giants of the modern professional game, he replies: “I was always a bit of a mad kid so they passed that worry a long time ago.”

A bit mad maybe, but apparently pretty sensible at times too.

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