2013 Season Preview: BLUES
by Brendan Bradford –
Despite having one of the best rosters in the competition and coming off the back of a semi-final the year before, the Blues struggled through their worst season in Super Rugby history in 2012, eventually finishing their injury plagued year bottom of the New Zealand conference and 12th overall.
It’s hard to say exactly what went wrong at one of the bastions of New Zealand rugby. Ill-form and injuries to key players certainly didn’t help, but there was something missing right throughout the year; some intangible element that meant the three time champions failed to click, leaving supporters bemused, frustrated and angry.
While the All Blacks were – if it were possible – a level above where they were in 2011 and the other New Zealand franchises had variously successful seasons, it might be that the Auckland Blues bore the brunt of a national post-World Cup hangover. Piri Weepu was visibly unfit, Ma’a Nonu returned from a stint in Japan in desperate need of a break while Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock, Anthony Boric, Isaia Toeava and Rudi Wulf all spent time on the physio’s table at the start of the season.
The unprecedented string of injuries decimated the squad from the get-go and coach Pat Lam’s shoe-string teams failed to notch a win against any of their New Zealand counterparts. A rare win over the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in round three was a highlight but a loss to the Rebels and a humiliating 59-12 demolition by the Crusaders summed up a disappointing season.
But from coaches box to subs bench, it’s an almost unrecognisable Blues outfit in 2013.
All Black hero Sir John Kirwan has returned to the place where it all started for him (Kirwan played on the wing for Auckland and his first coaching position was with the Blues in 2001) after learning the finer points of the coaching trade in Italy and Japan. With Sir Graham Henry coming on-board as Technical Advisor, the Blues have potentially the best coaching team in world rugby.
But the real talking point is the change in the playing roster with a whopping 18 departures since the end of last season. Included on that list are Jerome Kaino, Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock, Rudy Wulf, Isaia Toeava, talented playmakers Gareth Anscombe and Michael Hobbs, stalwart backrower Daniel Braid and All Blacks Brad Mika and Alby Mathewson. In fact, only two backs – Weepu and Rene Ranger – remain from last year’s horror season.
There is some experience coming into the squad with playmaker Chris Noakes and lock Culum Retallick (both from the Highlanders) and former Chiefs midfielder Jackson Willison relocating to Auckland, but many of the other new faces are relatively untested at Super Rugby level. Outside-back and excitement machine Charles Piutau was one of the best players in New Zealand’s provincial ITM Cup last year and he’ll make the step up to Super Rugby with high hopes and great expectations.
Other ITM Cup stars including former Junior All Blacks captain Bryn Hall, centre Malakai Fekitoa and promising forward Steven Luatua will also be attempting to crack the big-time while Weepu looks to be back to full fitness.
With Keven Mealamu sitting out the first month, the inexperienced side will be led by old warhorse Ali Williams. In his 12th season of Super Rugby, Williams will only get better with the added responsibility of the captaincy and he’s certainly looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about a season than I have about this one,” the 31-year-old said.
“A) because it’s a whole new challenge for me as captain, but B) because I’m at that stage of my career where I just want to play the game and I want to play it to the best of my abilities, so when the time comes I can sit back and say I had a good gig and now I’m going to do something else.
“I don’t want to leave any stone unturned which is what I’m doing and now is about getting fit and getting an organised, passionate team together that really wants to play. We’re creating a pretty determined group – or a tribe as we call it – of people that want to drive what is going to be a winning culture.”
Clearly building for the future, John Kirwan is excited about the “youthful enthusiasm” of his side but is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task he confronts.
“It’ll be a challenge but I think we’ve got the ability. If the boys can learn fast, add some experience we’ll be into it,” said Kirwan.
“We’re working on something here, we’re trying to rebuild so the most important thing is Blues fans walk away proud.”
Trial form is no guarantee for success or failure once the Super Rugby competition gets underway but two wins over the Waratahs and Highlanders and a narrow loss to the Reds in pre-season should give some cause for confidence. The fact that they scored 16 tries in the process should also give fans reason to believe that they could be in for a return to the exciting, attacking football that was a hallmark of the Blues during their title winning years. The good times may be about to return to Eden Park…