Long a potent breeding ground, there was a hint of the future with the way the young Blues tore into their craft in the opening round, while the maturity displayed later in the game wasn’t merely down to the on field leaders, but the calm instilled by a new coaching team has already filtered through to the troops, and the excitement of what the team could offer was obvious in the capital during the weekend.
North of the country was not the only place where there was plenty of youthful talent on display.
Twenty-Eight players in Kiwi squads are new to Super Rugby this year, but the strength of the groups are not just evident by the impressive young names, from the ITM Cup through to the Under-20 and Sevens systems, but by the healthy splattering of world class players and All Blacks – whose presence only serves to further develop the bucks who showed their clout in what was the first official competition sighting of the New Zealand Conference teams.
It clearly is a fair bet to suggest that the Kiwi’s sides could be among the most prominent in Super Rugby, if not for the speed which they all wanted to play the game, but for their desire for up tempo rugby, which was as clear as was the traditional respective styles of the Australian and South African teams on display throughout the first fortnight of rugby.
This would serve to delight All Blacks coach Steve Hansen on two fronts, with the head man beginning an incredibly important ledger that will culminate in a squad naming for the Steinlager Series for France in June.
Seeing his talent pool obviously wide will give the All Blacks coach and his team some musing as to perhaps continue the injection of maiden blood into the overall squad setup. Remember a year ago we were not considering Aaron Smith as the likely starting Test halfback, for he still had to dislodge Jimmy Cowan from the Highlanders starting berth…
Sam Cane is a name who made his debut last year, but in one appearance again looked like a potential heir, as Hansen will look to fill the shoes of the master, with Richie McCaw still on sabbatical when the 2011 Rugby World Cup runners up touch down on New Zealand soil, with Les Bleus looking a far more dangerous side by the week with every further Six Nations loss.
Other names like Tim Nanai-Williams could even have been lightly noted in the early All Blacks formbook, while there will be further interest as All Blacks continue to warm into the season, with a fair chunk still to suit up for battle with the Crusaders entering the fray in Round Three.
Beyond the talent Hansen and the All Blacks will study styles.
The harmony between the Test side and the Investec Super Rugby sides was obvious by the clear format utilised by all four teams in action, playing fast rugby that couldn’t be displayed without the prerequisite fitness, and the untrained eye could pick that many players, led by the trim Piri Weepu, appear to be in as good as shape as they have in some time.
But an obvious New Zealand style, favouring attack backed up with solidity in the set piece and defence, could come from a factor of many aspects, from early enthusiasm to the above mentioned youth, but at this stage Hansen will be pleased at the mental fortitude of a young Chiefs side and a Blues outfit under the pump - knowing that form, fitness and ultimately the top two inches are in good shape so far for the four franchises already in action.
MOST OBVIOUS PERSON – Hard to go past Ali Williams. A senior lieutenant under Hansen, seeing the big lock add calm leadership to his resume will not have gone unnoticed, and that sort of senior statesmanship will be crucial for a new All Blacks captain later this year
MOST OBVIOUS POSITION – No Sonny Bill, Kahui off to Japan, a crisis! Not likely. The shining form of a sick Nanai-Williams, the threat of Rene Ranger, and the sparkle and polish of more than a few others, showed that the midfield is hardly an area of concern in New Zealand Rugby.
MOST OBVIOUS PLAY – We saw the Australian sides battle stoically in tactical battles in Round One, and both our rivals across the Tasman and foes in the Republic were true to type, with the South Africans playing forward heavy rugby, backed by a classic Morne Steyn performance at Loftus over the weekend. Their known methods may have been similar to what we know, but so was that of the New Zealand sides – favouring fast offensive rugby with some solid physicality and that required high level fitness. A sign that the All Blacks will look to use this to outpace sides this season?