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.
So much potential but fears over squad depth and an inexperienced backline is the stumbling block when talking up their play-off chances. Up front they have plenty of knowhow while in behind there’s excitement surrounding the backs, but it’s whether a perfect balance of the two can be struck to create success that is the big question.
Last year: Remember all that pre-season excitement over Benji Marshall? Well it didn’t play out as hoped for the Blues as like their rugby league convert, it was a disappointing year as Marshall made just six appearances in blue. Sir John Kirwan’s charges finished 2014 in tenth position with a record of seven wins and nine losses seeing them end up as basement dwellers in a high quality New Zealand conference. A major positive was their record at Eden Park where they won six out of eight games but they could not back that up on the road, which was the reason why they missed the top six. On a personal note, George Moala was tied third on the try chart on eight while Steven Luatua was a go-to man at line-outs and their breakthrough star was second-row Patrick Tuipulotu, who went on to represent the All Blacks in a fine year.
This year: Plenty of departures on the playing roster for the Blues as Tom McCartney, Tom Donnelly, Peter Saili, Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Jackson Willison stand out from a squad depth mindset. Experience arrives in the form of Josh Bekhuis, Culum Retallick, Jimmy Cowan and Dan Bowden while Ben Lam is a talent. Fly-half Ihaia West is a year better off in Super Rugby and despite being just 23, he must lead what is a young backline that has a great deal of potential. Up front they have plenty of experience in Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina et al but it will be some achievement if they finish above the Chiefs, who enter as favourites for the New Zealand conference. It may be a shootout with the Crusaders for a place in the play-offs and one just wonders what effect their ‘home’ road trip outside of Eden Park will have on results.
Key players: The loss of Saili to Bordeaux-Begles places extra emphasis on the form at number eight of Jerome Kaino and Luatua. Both are outstanding blindside flankers and due to Saili’s exit it is now highly likely they will be on the field at the same time more than we might have expected. Kaino could be managed by the All Blacks in terms of games so Luatua has to step up and lead alongside Luke Braid, who enters his final campaign at the franchise. If this strong trio start plenty of games as a back-row combination, Kirwan will be a happy man.
Players to watch: Of course that aforementioned threesome are critical to the Blues’ season but do not underestimate what an in-form West can bring to the Auckland franchise. A first full year in Super Rugby after his late call in 2014, West is a special pivot who has box office skills, as does Charlie Piutau in a pivotal season for him ahead of the Rugby World Cup. The same goes for impressive lock Tuipulotu and he is ready to form an impressive engine room combination with Bekhuis in 2015, who is a superb off-season signing from the Highlanders.
Prospects: As mentioned, they don’t play at fortress Eden Park until Round Nine so the Blues have to find some early form on the road if they are to avoid playing catch-up. There is no doubt they have the attacking weapons to unlock any defence but it is whether they can show enough in the top two inches and defensively. We are afraid the jury remains out on those facets so expect them to just miss the play-offs.
Ins and outs:
In: Josh Bekhuis (Highlanders), Culum Retallick (Bay of Plenty), Joe Edwards (Auckland), Jimmy Cowan (Gloucester), Daniel Bowden (Leicester), Hamish Northcott (Manawatu), Ben Lam (Auckland).
Out: Tom McCartney (Connacht), Tom Donnelly (Montpellier), Liaki Moli (released), Kane Barrett (released), Jordan Manihera (North Harbour), Peter Saili (Bordeaux-Begles), Sonatane Takulua (Northland), Piri Weepu (London Welsh), Baden Kerr (Saracens) Chris Noakes (London Irish), Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes), Jackson Willison (Grenoble), Albert Nikoro (Force), Benji Marshall (rugby league).
Sat, 14 Feb v Chiefs (North Harbour)
Sat, 21 Feb v Stormers (Cape Town)
Fri, 27 Feb v Cheetahs (Bloemfontein)
Sat, 7 Mar v Lions (North Harbour)
Fri, 13 Mar v Hurricanes (Palmerston North)
Round 6 (Bye)
Sat, 28 Mar v Waratahs (Sydney)
Sat, 4 Apr v Chiefs (Hamilton)
Fri, 10 Apr v Brumbies (Auckland)
Sat, 18 Apr v Highlanders (Dunedin)
Sat, 25 Apr v Crusaders (Christchurch)
Sat, 2 May v Force (Auckland)
Fri, 8 May v Rebels (Melbourne)
Fri, 15 May v Bulls (Auckland)
Sat, 23 May v Hurricanes (Auckland)
Round 16 (Bye)
Sat, 6 Jun v Crusaders (Auckland)
Fri 12 Jun v Highlanders (Auckland)