SYDNEY (Reuters) - Auckland Blues coach Leon MacDonald believes winning the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final could be the moment that sets his talented squad on the path to finally fulfilling its potential.
MacDonald admitted it had been "scary" watching Saturday's brutal final against the Otago Highlanders at Eden Park but the Blues clinched the win in the last 10 minutes to secure a first piece of silverware since 2003.
A title in a lopsided Australasian competition -- the Australian teams won two of 25 matches -- may lack the prestige of New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa but MacDonald thought it could have a significant impact on his squad.
"We'll gain belief, which is huge. We understand how tough it is and what it takes to win a title now," he told reporters in the post-match news conference.
"I think the guys when you speak to them in the sheds, they're really hungry for more. They love this feeling. It might just light that fire for us to keep moving forward."
Despite having a squad routinely packed with All Blacks, New Zealand's best-resourced Super Rugby franchise had not played a playoff match for a decade before Saturday night.
Former All Black MacDonald came on board in 2009 and the team has steadily improved under his guidance with second place in the inaugural Aotearoa competition in 2020 and third only on a tiebreaker this year.
There will be some departures before the next Super Rugby season but 28-year-old skipper Patrick Tuipulotu will remain with the core of the squad.
Joining them will be twice World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett, who has been on sabbatical in Japan, and the abundantly talented rugby league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
"This group now has got massive potential," MacDonald said.
"I think we're just starting to see in the second half of the season some massive growth from individuals, and the collective.
"We're a young group as well which is exciting. Paddy is one of the older statesmen and his best years are still ahead of him."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Daniel Wallis)