James Mortimer 13.Feb.2013Getty Images
Last season: It might not have been a horror season were it any other team, with rebuilding, new personal, etc, rolled out as reasons for team’s slumps – but it is something that a three-time championship winning team will not utter. Especially after pre 2012 they were expected to challenge for the title, before injuries struck (arguably the worst in the tournament), while the exceptional form of the other four Kiwi teams didn’t allow much room for error. They did however sign off their campaign in style with a stunning victory over the then Australian Conference leading Brumbies, while capturing an always rare Bulls scalp in Pretoria.
This season: Two words - The Knights. The combination of one of the All Blacks legendary wingers and now relatively seasoned coach in Sir John Kirwan matching minds with Sir Graham Henry, the World Cup winning former All Blacks coach who has possibly the best record of any Test coach in history. They might struggle to field more than several All Blacks, a big change from the norm, but the injection of youth and a rebuilt coaching team with pedigree hints at the unknown…
The coaches: As mentioned the above head coach and technical advisor will steal limelight due to their status, but don’t discount the input of former All Blacks skills coach Mick Byrne and Grant Doorey, who like Kirwan has spent time with Italy and Japan. The Blues might not have a galaxy of international stars this season, but the regions system will be something that all four coaches – especially the two-time Super Rugby winning Blues ex-head coach Henry – will tap into with glee.
The forwards: The late arrival, albeit within the first month or two, of Keven Mealamu will be key, whose commitment to the team was demonstrated when he stepped aside from the captaincy as he didn’t want to take over the armband during the season. Keep an eye on Luke Braid as well, one of the unsung heroes of the Auckland and Blues packs, whose young head on old shoulders will be crucial for success in New Zealand’s biggest rugby region.
The backs: In the past the Blues backline has been a sparkling division, but outside of Piri Weepu and Rene Ranger this is one of the least experienced outside operations the Blues have boasted, but there is plenty of promise in a collection of players that look to have been assembled for youth, promise and fitness – with Sir John saying he wants his team to outlast other sides. Again for the optimist, lack of some glamour names means that many of these players will not have been thoroughly analysed.
Big loss?: This is a young Blues side, with the aggregate age among the lowest in Super Rugby, while the usual double digit number of All Blacks is missing, perhaps for the first time. But the coaches and franchise will look at this glass half full, and believe that even with a difficult season – even if Sir John and co target the title – that the foundations will be laid with players for the most part under twenty-four for the years ahead.
Big gain?: No – not the coaches. The Blues biggest gain will be the hard season before them, which may see, even it is disconcerting to diehard fans, the three-time winners viewed as weaker based on their 2012 ledger. Despite the usual strength of the New Zealand Conference, where all Kiwi champions must thrive, a big number of these players who have little in their dossiers combined with the talents of the ‘two Sirs’ could be a Blues turning point.
The leader: Ali Williams became an automatic choice in many pundits quarters after All Blacks front man and hooker Keven Mealamu opted to step aside, and the 77-Test All Black will have plenty to prove, most likely to himself, as he looks to establish himself after the next breed of second rowers came to the fore in New Zealand last year. Williams will have his work cut out, for despite the presence of the likes of Mealamu and Braid – comical Ali will not have a grizzled leadership group behind him.
Records: Three-time champions (1996, 1997, 2003), Three-time regular season top finishers (1996, 1997, 2003), One-time runners up (1998), Super Rugby Final’s Series (2007, 2011).
Squad: Backs: Charles Piutau, Marty McKenzie, George Moala, Waisake Naholo, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Malakai Fekitoa, Jackson Willison, Francis Saili, Chris Noakes, Baden Kerr, Piri Weepu, Jamison Gibson-Park, Bryn Hall. Forwards: Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Brendon O'Connor, Kane Barrett, Steven Luatua, Ronald Raaymakers, Ali Williams, Liaki Moli, Anthony Boric, Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Tim Perry, Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu, Quentin MacDonald, James Parsons.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: theblues.co.nz