With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Blues.
Under a new head coach there is a fair chunk of optimism at Eden Park heading into 2016's campaign, with Tana Umaga having taken over the reins from Sir John Kirwan. Change had to be made if we're being honest and the work Umaga did at Counties gives Blues fans a lot of hope.
The team boasts a handful of up-and-coming talents while others are reaching the peak of their careers in terms of age so they do possess more positives than negatives when assessing how they will fare. In all honesty though, the only way is up after just three wins in 2015.
Last Year: As we say, three victories just wasn't good enough for the Auckland-based outfit with those wins coming against the Brumbies, Force and Bulls. They were out of the running by the early rounds as that first win only came in Round 9 as even their usual fortress of Eden Park crumbled in the season run-in, with heavy defeats coming against the Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders. It was therefore a season to forget and one that cost Kirwan his job. George Moala and Jerome Kaino were their two main stand-outs in a disappointing year.
This Year: There is a great deal of excitement surrounding the probable midfield partnership of George Moala and Rene Ranger while Rieko and Akira Ioane have been shining lights for New Zealand in this season's World Rugby Sevens Series. Losing two outstanding opensides in Brendon O'Connor and Luke Braid is a setback, but Tanerau Latimer will add a lot of experience alongside Ioane, Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua in the back-row. So talent is there but how will they hold up playing against their local rivals in the new format? Eden Park has been a fortress over recent years and they will want that to continue under Umaga, who's giving off a lot of positive vibes in pre-season.
Key Players: A lot rests on the shoulders of the half-backs in Auckland this season. They are Bryn Hall and Ihaia West. Hall is likely to be first-choice after the departures of both Jimmy Cowan and Jamison Gibson-Park while West is clearly the main man going forward at ten following Simon Hickey's move to Bordeaux-Begles. West has searing pace and is a reliable goal-kicker and if he ticks all the other boxes then it will allow players such as George Moala to power through gaps in opposition defences. This is a big year for the All Black centre.
Players to Watch: It has to be Akira Ioane. What an impact he has made for New Zealand on the Sevens circuit this season, which followed his impressive Super Rugby campaign last year. Put simply he can do things other back-row forwards cannot and if he can combine and learn off Jerome Kaino, the Blues and All Blacks have got themselves one high-class individual. We're also looking forward to seeing Rene Ranger back in blue as the barnstorming centre returns after a hot-and-cold spell in France with Montpellier. He will flourish being back home.
Prospects: Win their home games and they have a chance of the play-offs; that will be the message from Blues fans this season. They won't have experienced head like Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock up front but they do have plenty of talent and forwards on the up such as lock Patrick Tuipulotu. Throw in the Umaga factor and maybe, just maybe, they can shock a few of their rivals and push hard for the knockouts.
Players In: Quentin MacDonald (Chiefs), Hoani Matenga (Wellington), Gerard Tuioti-Mariner (North Harbour), Tanerau Latimer (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Kara Pryor (Northland), Billy Guyton (Crusaders), Sam Nock (Northland), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), Rene Ranger (Montpellier), Male Sa'u (Yamaha Júbilo), Matt Duffie (Melbourne Storm)
Players Out: Angus Ta'avao (Waratahs), Tony Woodcock (retired), Keven Mealamu (retired), William Lloyd (Auckland), Culum Retallick (Rebels), Hayden Triggs (Leinster), Luke Braid (Bordeaux), Brendon O'Connor (Leicester Tigers), Jimmy Cowan (Tasman), Jamison Gibson-Park (Hurricanes), Daniel Bowden (Bath), Simon Hickey (Bordeaux), Pita Ahki (Hurricanes), Hamish Northcott (Manawatu), Francis Saili (Munster), Matt Vaega (North Harbour), Frank Halai (Wasps), Charles Piutau (Wasps)
Friday, 26 February v Highlanders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, 4 March v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 11 March v Hurricanes (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, 19 March v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Round 5: BYE
Saturday, 2 April v Jaguares (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, 8 April v Chiefs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, 16 April v Sharks (Eden Park, Auckland)
Round 9: BYE
Saturday, 30 April v Rebels (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, 7 May v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, 14 May v Lions (Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 21 May v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 28 May v Crusaders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, 2 July v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Friday, 8 July v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, 15 July v Waratahs (Eden Park, Auckland)