Kirwan admits to gaps in squad
If Super Rugby titles were won by star power alone, the Blues would easily be a top contender.
But coach Sir John Kirwan is aware that he needs to match the hype with results.
The second-year Super Rugby coach initiated a rigorous recruitment drive with the hopes of improving on this year's 10th place finish and got almost everything on his wish list.
"I would say 95 percent in terms of what we wanted to do," Kirwan told Sportal of the targets he secured before the October 28 deadline.
Front row and loose forward are now areas of strength, thanks to the return of Tony Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina, from injury, and Jerome Kaino, while the blow of centre Rene Ranger has, in theory, been offset by the return of Ma'a Nonu.
It's scary to think how good Charles Piutau could become in a few years and he will again lead a back three which has proved its ability under the high ball, although tactical kicking remains an issue.
Then there are the areas of concern.
Dumped All Black Piri Weepu is alone in the department of top tier halfbacks and Kirwan is hoping Benji Marshall can become the X-factor player the franchise so desperately needs at first-five.
And because Tom Donnelly, Patrick Tuipulotu and Tom Murday were the only new pieces of tall timber brought in to patch up the problems at lock, there is still a lack of class in that area.
One only needs to recall when Ali Williams and Culum Retallick were dominated by the Crusaders duo of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano in May to realise why more was expected.
"I still think we've got some gaps at lock so we're trying to have a five-year strategic plan attached to the team. Hopefully we'll do that and if we can build some succession then I think we'll be in a strong position," Kirwan said.
A large chunk of the playing squad had also anticipated the return of Isaia Toeava to their ranks.
It was thought that the 61-cap veteran, who left the Blues in 2012 to play for the Cannon Eagles in Japan, was on his way back to New Zealand before the squad was revealed on Wednesday.
"All but confirmed" is how Kirwan described the agreement that would have seen the World Cup winning All Black add his utility value to a relatively inexperienced group of backs.
"I think he just wanted to come back for the season and that sort of went against the ability to bring him back," he said.
"But we got really close and I was hoping he wanted to come back for a couple of years, he's still only a young man.
"He has sort of decided that Japan is his main focus."
Sportal also understands that Kirwan expressed an interest in luring Canterbury wing Milford Keresoma back to his home town before he suffered a torn ACL in the ITM Cup.
The future of left wing George Moala hinges on whether or not he is sentenced later this year for an assault charge that became public after he was arrested shortly before the Blues travelled to play the Reds in April.
Should he become unavailable, Kirwan will most likely call on Lolagi Visinia, who impressed for Auckland at fullback but has just one Super Rugby cap under his belt.
The Blues start their pre-season 10 days earlier than last year, which will give coaches more time to explore different selection scenarios while Kirwan wants the squad to reach new fitness goals.
After restoring the faith of fans this year, the Blues are expected to at least make the playoffs with their new roster. That is easier said than done, however, with the Chiefs and Crusaders likely to hang onto the top two spots in the New Zealand conference.
A wildcard spot may be realistic goal but Kirwan isn't looking too far ahead.
"It's risky talking about goals but I realise that last year was sort of a honey moon period. People have high expectations of us and we'd love to make the playoffs and then whatever happens after that really."