Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Fortress Eden Park

After 10 years of disappointment, Blues fans finally have reason to believe the glory days may be returning.

People are quick to judge. Deprivation does that for those following the Blues' fortunes.

Bright moments seem dazzling because they offer a chance for an optimism that has been absent for the past decade.

So it was last week when the fledgling Blues travelled to the Cake Tin to open their Super 15 campaign against the Hurricanes.

Curiosity travelled with John Kirwan and his squad. They were a raw group of recruits topped with a thin layer of senior experience and backed by a coaching group with some serious nous.

"Who knows?" was the only appropriate response to inquiries about the Blues' prospects. It was tough enough identifying many in the squad without having to predict their form.

The Blues' plucky 34-20 win produced a range of emotions. Cyclopsian fans began imagining Fortress Eden Park themes, others who have never seen any merit in the sport went "ho hum", while enough favoured a more measured response.

That is understandable for those who have pinned their support on the Blues for the past 10 years.

Many kept going back to Eden Park, believing the Blues would deliver as they did in 2003 - only to have had the dream shattered.

Five times since that last title, the Blues have started the following season with a victory, only to sink and wither under sustained fire.

Twice when they started with victories against the Crusaders, in 2007 and 2011, the Blues made the playoffs before they faded.

Optimism turned into ridicule as results meandered and spectators became more selective with their entertainment dollars.

The 5th, 7th, 8th, 4th, 6th, 9th, 7th, 4th and 12th place finishes have been a graph in patchy mediocrity, a dismissal of any thoughts about the Blues creating a rugby dynasty since their heady beginnings in the professional competition.

But those interested in rugby have a hunch this year might be different. At least they hope so.

The past four years of Pat Lam and the previous four with David Nucifora, wrapped around a passive administration, produced little gain.

It seemed the Blues meandered along without much heat being applied to the side or its officials.

While professional codes in different parts of the globe were far more ruthless with their reaction to results, the NZRU and Blues trod water.

What is different about this year?

There is an organised vitality which has not always been apparent, an understanding of where the Blues have failed and what needs to change.

The coaches are men on the march, blokes who will demand progress and not bend to mediocrity. Problems and challenges will be stared down instead of being used as excuses.

Initially there was a players' cull, then subsequent fitness and playing demands on a new group, while some strong experience has been placed around that group.

That's not only in the coaching staff, where Kirwan, Mick Byrne, Grant Doorey, Graham Henry and Nick White interact.

Experience also oozes out of Dr Stephen Kara and physio Mark Plummer, video analyst Troy Webber is using his expertise once more, media man James Rigby is with the side, Wally Rifle has brought some of his strength and conditioning techniques he learned with the Chiefs, and manager Bryce Anderson should have a better second-year grip on demands.

Others fill in the gaps on the periphery while the coaching staff go about their primary business. A handful of playing legends interact and former chief executive Peter Scutts works on special projects, mentoring, planning and ideas.

Players have a wide group of passionate interested people to turn to when they want advice.

Kirwan's passion for the Blues and his work is apparent. He confronts his players to embody that drive for success.

Rugby is a collective sport with individual needs and the Blues are working to polish the pieces. There is no quick fix - results will vary with such a raw group - but the staff never want to detect any wavering in effort.

The start at the Cake Tin was encouraging, especially for the defence which yielded only two tries including a controversial penalty try.

It was only the beginning but a boost after last season's dross.

The pressure will increase tonight at Eden Park when the Crusaders will look to hassle the Blues out of their new systems.

Southern whispers suggest the Crusaders have undergone some form of makeover too. Their attacking intent has shifted as they look to improve on their title-free run of recent seasons.

The embryonic Blues against the revisionist Crusaders shapes as an absorbing first of two contests between the franchises.

- NZ Herald

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