Wales hovers for Michael Collins, but not before seeing through Blues challenge
Collins has already been flagged in Welsh media as the next Kiwi set to head their way to chase a spot in the national team, a la Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes in more recent times.
Courtesy of a Welsh grandfather, Collins is both Wales and England eligible and that is likely to make him a highly sought-after free agent when he comes off contract in New Zealand at the end of 2019.
The genial 25-year-old who hails from scenic Central Otago has ambitions to play test rugby and is realistic enough to understand that Wales or England would offer the most likely pathway to get there. But he also has two more seasons with Otago (2018 and '19) at the provincial level and another with the Blues in Super Rugby before he even gets to that juncture.
So while Welsh media breathlessly reported recently that Collins had the regions on "red alert" with his intentions, the Blues backline utility and arguably their most consistent performer not named Rieko Ioane has moved quickly to dampen that enthusiasm from back here in the real world.
"That's been blown a wee bit out of proportion," he said before his penultimate training session of the Super Rugby season. "Being Wales and England qualified, it's always been an option to go back there and ply the trade. But I've just recommitted here for another year, so that's the sole focus at the moment."
Collins did play most of a season with the Llanelli-based Scarlets in 2015-16 as a post-World Cup fill-in and still talks fondly of his time there. But he denies the moons are aligning after Tuesday's announcement that his coach from that stint, Kiwi Wayne Pivac, has been confirmed to succeed Warren Gatland in charge of Wales following next year's global event.
"I love the people and culture there, and after that wee stint I probably looked at it more seriously. But I haven't had any talks with clubs over there and the sole focus is to try to turn this club around and hopefully help inflict a bit of change," he said, referencing his remaining year with the struggling Blues.
"Wayne is a really good coach, he's done a lot at the Scarlets and he'll have a good shot at it with the Welsh job in a couple of years. But I don't think there are any stars aligning there."
Collins is possibly being self-effacing. He's made a fair fist of the fullback role with the Blues over the last two seasons, and had been performing well enough at centre in recent weeks before Ngani Laumape tore the Auckland side's midfield to shreds on Saturday night in Wellington.
His take: "You've got to be good enough to play that level first and it's unknown if I am yet. Everyone wants to play as high as they can and international rugby is the pinnacle. It's definitely a goal."
But so is turning round the Blues. And so far that's proving decidedly problematic with the Auckland franchise continuing to tread water at the shallow end of the Kiwi pool. They haven't made the playoffs in seven seasons now and a 2018 record of 4-11 heading into Saturday's finale against the Crusaders in Christchurch indicates they remain a work very much in progress.
There is change in the air. Leon MacDonald is coming in next season to assist Tana Umaga, and hopefully bring some of that Crusaders winning culture, and all of this year's assistant coaches have been told they must re-apply for their jobs.
The Blues chairman has also fallen on his sword, though there are many who believe others need to follow his lead at the board level of the franchise.
Collins is adamant things, on the field at least, are on the improve and that "small tweaks" will produce major results. "I would have probably jumped ship if I didn't see [that]. I know from the outside all you see is results – and we're in a results-driven industry – but from what the coaches are doing, and the changes we're making internally, it's leading us in the right way.
"We've just got to click, win a few games, get a few habits together and it will start snowballing and everything will flow on. The effort and intent has always been there, it's just finer details we've been lacking a wee bit.
"We're going through a tough time but the decision to recommit is to try help change this club round."