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!
After a positive first year under Sir John Kirwan, the Blues will want to take the next step in 2014.
Last year: They finished 22 points off New Zealand conference winners the Chiefs. However, that was a 12 point improvement on 2012 so the Blues certainly had more positives than negatives to draw upon as they went into the off-season, with Sir John Kirwan having instilled pride back into the jersey. Alongside Kirwan was Sir Graham Henry, Mick 'the kick' Byrne and Grant Doorey, who helped bring through a new batch of players.
Many weren't aware of the likes of Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai before the season began but a few weeks in, these four were looking like All Blacks in waiting. They all went on to represent their country while the likes of Piri Weepu, Luke Braid, Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina enjoyed strong terms as they got off to a fine start, winning at the Hurricanes and then at home to the Crusaders.
Narrow defeats to the Bulls, Waratahs, Chiefs then held them back in terms of settling in the pace-setting pack but all in all a positive season after what had been before Kirwan arrived. Auckland definitely had a team they could be proud of as the rebuilding phase bore fruit.
This year: It is going to be tough for Blues supporters getting used to life without Rene Ranger as after five impressive years, he is now with Montpellier in France. Ranger is replaced in the squad by Ma'a Nonu, who hasn't had much luck in Super Rugby over recent seasons, while Pita Ahki also comes in as an option outside Francis Saili. Jackson Willison is a good squad man in his last season before he heads to Grenoble so the midfield cupboards are well stocked, with George Moala a dangerous three-quarter runner.
Building on the foundations laid in 2013 is the task for Kirwan and company and they'll have to do it without experienced second-row duo Anthony Boric and Ali Williams while Tim Perry and Quentin MacDonald also move on, leaving a leadership group of Keven Mealamu, Tom McCartney, Luatua and Weepu. Tony Woodcock takes Perry's spot so an All Black front-row - with McCartney and Angus Ta'avao coming off the bench - is very strong indeed.
But much, like the Hurricanes who we previewed yesterday, rests on the consistency in results and maximising the ability of Marshall and Piutau - the latter having beaten the most defenders and along with Ranger made the most clean breaks in the 2013 competition. If Marshall settles quickly, Nonu transfers his international form to Super Rugby, Kaino forms a quality back-row and Moala and Halai are clinical, they will push hard in New Zealand.
Key players: All eyes will be on marquee signing Benji Marshall as he looks to bed in to the fly-half jersey at the Blues. Israel Folau did urge Marshall to start out at full-back in union, but Marshall wants to be up in the front line. That is good news for the Charlie Piutau fans amongst us as he stood out last season from fifteen. He is another in limbo with talk suggesting a possible switch to midfield. Also keep an eye on returning All Black Jerome Kaino and also George Moala, who has been in devastating form during pre-season.
Noteworthy signings: Tony Woodcock (Highlanders), Tom Donnelly (Crusaders), Hayden Triggs (Honda Heat), Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Toyota Verblitz), Pita Ahki (North Harbour), Ma'a Nonu (Highlanders), Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers)
Noteworthy losses: Tim Perry (Crusaders), Quentin MacDonald (released), Gafatasi Su'a (released), Anthony Boric (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Ronald Raaymakers (released), Ali Williams (Toulon), Culum Retallick (injured), Wayne Ngaluafe (released), Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders), Rene Ranger (Montpellier), Waisake Naholo (All Blacks Sevens), Albert Nikoro (wider training group), Marty McKenzie (All Blacks Sevens)
Prospects: Pre-season hasn't brought wins but the Blues seem to be keeping their cards close to their chest before their season kicks off against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium. This is probably the best year they've had in a good while of being within touching distance of being in touching distance of the Dan Carter-less Crusaders and with a South African tour seeing them avoid the Stormers and Sharks, the play-offs are a realistic hope.
Feb 22: v Highlanders, away
Feb 28: v Crusaders, home
Mar 8: v Bulls, away
Mar 15: v Lions, away
Mar 22: v Cheetahs, home
Mar 29: v Highlanders, home
Apr 4: v Brumbies, away
Week 9: Bye
Apr 18: v Hurricanes, away
Apr 25: v Waratahs, home
May 2: v Reds, home
May 9: v Chiefs, away
Week 14: Bye
May 23: v Sharks, home
May 31: v Hurricanes, home
Jun 28: v Force, away
Jul 5: v Crusaders, away
Jul 11: v Chiefs, home