Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Blues prepare for departure

Chris Lowrey is expected to leave the Blues for a Japanese club at the end of this season. Photo / Getty Images
Chris Lowrey is expected to leave the Blues for a Japanese club at the end of this season. Photo / Getty Images

The Blues fear they may lose as many as 10 of their current squad but are confident an emerging crop of ITM Cup talent will fill the gaps.

Luring some ready-made replacements with Super Rugby experience is proving challenging, with the best players either locked in to other franchises or uncertain about the direction, future coaching structure and overall ambition of the Blues.

Last year, coach Pat Lam felt the Blues had turned a corner and had achieved one of their key goals, which was to become an aspirational franchise; a side young men around the country wanted to play for.

This season's disastrous campaign has been a major setback on that front and the major agencies that look after the bulk of New Zealand's professional players are struggling to recommend to any of their clients coming off contract that they consider the Blues.

Jerome Kaino is the only confirmed departure to date but Isaia Toeava has signalled he's eyeing a move to Japan if his hip surgery is successful and Chris Lowrey (Japan), Brad Mika (Japan), Lachie Munro (Bordeaux) and Benson Stanley (Clermont) are all likely to be moving on as well.

There is uncertainty around Piri Weepu and Alby Mathewson, who are coming off contract, although Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock, who are also off contract, are likely to stay.

The obvious areas of concern for the Blues next season are going to be No 8, halfback and fullback and they would most likely welcome some proven experience in the midfield as well.

"We are looking," says Blues chief executive Andy Dalton. "There are definitely going to be some places to fill [next year]."

Finding a quality No 8 is top of the agenda.

Kaino was set to play there this year until injury intervened but, with him, Lowrey and Mika moving on, that leaves just Peter Saili from this year's squad and it is debatable whether he is up to Super Rugby level.

It would be a risk to rely on Saili or any No 8 that emerges in the ITM Cup, given the importance of the position and the need to have a class operator at the base of the scrum.

But the Blues are facing that prospect, as the country's established and best operators - Kieran Read, Nasi Manu and Victor Vito - are not going to leave their respective franchises.

The offshore market may provide a better option but it's not been easy so far for any New Zealand franchise, with the exception of the Highlanders and James Haskell, to lure recognised talent from overseas. There was some confidence earlier in the year that former All Black halfback Kevin Senio would be returning home, as well as former Highlander and Crusader Daniel Bowden.

But Senio's contract has been extended by Clermont and Bowden, a talented operator at both first and second five, is thought to be close to re-signing with London Irish and committing himself to England.

Fullback is another pressing concern for the Blues, with Toeava and Munro not likely to be around next season.

Rudi Wulf can play there but prefers to operate on the wing.

Again, the Blues stand little chance of signing an established star; Israel Dagg is committed to the Crusaders, Andre Taylor is part of an exciting Hurricanes outfit and Ben Smith is a loyal Otago man, loving being part of the rejuvenated Highlanders.

The Blues are thought to have tried hard last year to bring Crusaders utility back Tom Marshall to Auckland and, given the depth of back three resources in Christchurch, it could be worth making another play for him.

It seems almost certain, even this far out, that 2013 will have legitimate grounds to be branded a 'rebuilding' year for the Blues.

Such a scenario may not thrill the fan base but the Blues executive have considerable faith in their talent identification and development programmes; confident that the young men emerging through the system will start to make an impact in Super Rugby.

"We got a major wake-up call in 2008 when 16 guys left Auckland - 14 of whom were All Blacks," says Dalton.

"We knew we would suffer an exodus post-World Cup and we felt we had players coming through but clearly we didn't, as 2008 and 2009 were tough years.

"We then took a look at our development programme and made some changes. We felt that the age-grade sides were about selecting the biggest and fastest players without any real attention to skill base.

"So now we have a talent identification programme that is about position, about skills, about types of character. We are seeing some of those players coming through - George Moala, Liaki Moli and Steve Luatua, for instance, and there are others - but it takes time."

- Herald on Sunday

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