Even though they haven’t been able to lift the Super Rugby trophy since 2003, the Blues have always been a force to be reckoned with. They were semi-finalists in 2011, but then followed that up with a disastrous season in 2012, only managing to win four of 16 games and finishing in 12th place overall.
Frustration amongst the fans grew as they recorded seven consecutive losses and later also suffered the largest defeat in the club’s history. This eventually resulted in the release of head coach Pat Lam and immediate introduction of his replacement, Sir John Kirwin. I must just mention this as I find it very interesting – JK was the Auckland Blues’ assistant coach in 2001, the year they technically had their worst season by finishing 11th in the Super 12. Not at all a comforting thought in my opinion.
Many other changes were made to the coaching staff, with the biggest news probably being the appointment of former All Black coach and World Cup Winner, Sir Graham Henry, as technical advisor.
When the 2013 training squad was announced, it was apparent that even more heads had rolled and less than a handful of relatively recognized names had been added. Stars like Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Lachie Munro, Alby Mathewson and quite a few more chose to move to other Super Rugby franchises and clubs around the world.
With the addition of guys like Quentin MacDonald, Chris Noakes and Jackson Willison, the team actually looks pretty good on paper, especially since they still have a number of experienced game-changing campaigners in their midst.
I am happy to report that Piri Weepu will start his second season at the Blues in much better shape. The dynamic halfback looks fit and lean, with an air about him that says he’s going to be back with a bang.
Weepu wasn’t the only one who had put in the extra yards during the off-season. Livewire Rene Ranger came back fitter, faster and stronger than ever; determined to make the number 13 jersey his own. The 26-year old now finds himself among the veterans in this inexperienced side and he will be called upon to mentor the youngsters around him.
The appointment of Ali Williams as captain was quite baffling to me. Apart from his bad run with injuries being a concern, I’ve always felt that he lacked the required discipline to be a leader. To me it seems that the management merely picked the guy with the most experience to lead the team after Kevin Mealamu relinquished the captaincy. I personally would have liked to see Luke Braid return as skipper since he kept on leading by example last year even when everyone around him fell apart.
Sir John Kirwin said that the Blues are going to be bold, unique and diverse this year. I want to share his sentiments, but I think they are too young and inexperienced to achieve much during this building up phase.
Although they seem to have the potential, I fear they have a tough year ahead and my prediction for the team from Auckland is second from the bottom – they would have surely beat the Kings.
by Jackie Smit