Super Rugby preview: Blues
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Next up, the Blues!
Under new management with former All Blacks wing and Japan coach John Kirwan at the helm, the Blues will be desperate to make up for an embarrassing 2012 Super Rugby campaign.
Last year: Four wins out of 12 matches marked an alarming dip in form for the Blues, including only one victory in their first ten games. Having lost to the champion Reds the season before in the semi-final, few expected the Blues to slump so far down the log.
A problematic leaky defence and difficult set of opening fixtures in which they faced the Crusaders twice in three weeks along with eventual champions the Chiefs and a visit to the Stormers compounded their season before it even started.
Try-scoring was also an issue - the Blues final total of 34 being the fourth lowest in the league and with no player scoring more than three tries (Luke Braid, Lachie Munro and Benson Stanley all finished on three.)
This year: Facing off with the Hurricanes twice in the first three weeks should offer a clear indication of where the Blues are headed this season.
A first home game with the Crusaders in Round Two should act as a similar measuring gauge - pick up a win there and confidence will spread and crowds will swell. Trips overseas will see the Blues take on the Waratahs, Reds, Sharks and Cheetahs - none of them easy fixtures - whilst home advantage will be crucial when hosting the Brumbies and Stormers late on in the season when the both of those sides will be expected to be fighting for the playoffs.
Key players: The exit door has not been kind to the Auckland franchise, with Jerome Kaino, Daniel Braid, Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodock and Isaia Toeava just a handful of names from the lengthy departure list. Wise heads do remain though - Keven Mealamu may not wear the captain's armband but is a stalwart of the side, who will work closely with Kirwan's pick for the captaincy, Ali Williams. Luke Braid will be expected to carry out plenty of work at the breakdown and the new slimmed down Piri Weepu is crucial not just for his distribution but also his goal-kicking. As for a best attacking threat, few are better in the Blues squad than the elusive Rene Ranger.
Noteworthy signings: Frank Halai (Counties Manukau), Baden Kerr (Counties Manukau), Chris Noakes (Highlanders), Culum Retallick (Highlanders), Jackson Willison (Chiefs)
Noteworthy losses: Gareth Anscombe, Michael Hobbs, Daniel Braid, Alby Mathewson, Brad Mika, Lachie Munro, Ma'a Nonu, Benson Stanley, Sherwin Stowers, Isaia Toeava, Tony Woodcock, Rudi Wulf
Prospects: Kirwan's first year in charge looks set to be a difficult one. The outgoing list isn't offset by those players coming in, plus the selection of Ali Williams as captain seems odd considering the presence of Braid and Mealamu.
Regardless, the Blues need to settle on a fly-half and quickly - neither Noakes or Kerr are immediately obvious selections. The Blues appear strong in the front five but light on experience elsewhere, with plenty of pressure on Ranger's shoulders in the centre. The playoffs seem to be too much of a demand for this year - with mid-table mediocrity more likely.
Week 1: Bye
Feb 22: v Hurricanes, away
March 1: v Crusaders, home
March 10: Bulls, home
Week 5: Bye
March 24: v Waratahs, away
March 30: v Chiefs, away
April 5: v Highlanders, home
April 13: v Hurricanes, home
Week 10: Bye
April 26: v Reds, away
May 3: v Stormers, home
May 11: v Rebels, home
May 18: v Crusaders, away
May 25: v Brumbies, home
June 1: Highlanders, away
Week 17: Bye
June 29: Sharks, away
July 6: Cheetahs, away
July 13: v Chiefs, home