Old heads to steady Blues
Sir John Kirwan is banking on added experience to drive the Blues deep into next year's Investec Super Rugby playoffs.
New All Blacks Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai are a reflection of the growth this year's 'baby Blues' underwent, but Kirwan admits there is a need for more players that can hit the ground running as he enters his final year under contract.
"What I learned from this year is that you need to have a full squad that can play. And while I think the youth brought us excitement it didn't give us the ability to backup," Kirwan said as he reflected back on their trip to South Africa where injuries to Chris Noakes and Piri Weepu severely exposed a lack of depth.
"It's really important that your whole squad can play."
Perhaps most importantly, the front row will be much more intimidating with Woodcock, an All Black centurion, joining the likes of Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina, who is back from a calf injury that ruled him out for most of last season.
From the six props used in 2013, Tim Perry, now with the Crusaders, is the only omission while Tom McCartney has been well advised to switch back to his natural position at hooker.
"He just probably didn't enjoy it as much up here and with Woody coming back I spoke to him about not getting a lot of game time," Kirwan said of Perry.
The loss of captain Ali Williams is somewhat alleviated by the acquisition of 32-year-old Donnelley, who was hardly seen in Super Rugby this year.
It is hoped that the work ethic which earned him 15 Test appearances for the All Blacks will rub off on 20-year-old lock Patrick Tuipulotu and Liaki Moli, who is yet to enjoy a full season without injury.
While Luatua performs his core roles to a high standard, he is expected to thrive under the guidance of Kaino, who mentored him when he debuted under Pat Lam in 2012.
Kaino was a dominant force in international rugby and his performance at the 2011 World Cup enabled him to demand a reported $1 million salary while playing in the lucrative Japanese club scene.
Another positive theme that is set to return for the Blues is the captaincy of Luke Braid.
Filling in for the injured Mealamu, Braid was fingered as a long-term leader for the franchise. But without that pressure this year he lifted his game significantly and is now considered one of the top five opensides in the country.
"It was an important decision," Kirwan said of the tossup between Braid and James Parsons, who captained the Blues against the touring French in June.
"We kept coming back to Luke. What we needed was someone who was a bit confrontational with us and take us to task.
"For me it was about getting someone that can stand up in any situation, and Luke does that."
Kirwan added Parsons to his core leadership group late in the season and said he intends to introduce Luatua and tighthead prop Angus Ta'avao.
Although Nonu's playing record should justify his inclusion in that group, Kirwan is in no rush to make that call before the season begins.
The 87-Test veteran is no stranger to controversy and must first convince his new employers that he is ready to commit fully to their programmes and systems.
Along with Marshall, there is huge expectation on him to bolster a backline that lacked direction at times this year. Chris Noakes is still the first-choice first-five but Marshall will contest that spot as Kirwan seeks X-factor in the playmaking role.