Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Youth Blues' chief targets

Andrew Horrell (left) is among the impressive performers unearthed by the Chiefs this season.
 Photo / Anthony Au-Yeung
Andrew Horrell (left) is among the impressive performers unearthed by the Chiefs this season. Photo / Anthony Au-Yeung

Inspired by the Chiefs' ability to find diamonds from what others thought was just coal, the Blues are already mining the country for young talent they believe could shine if given a chance.

Despite heavy defections at the end of this campaign, the Blues look to have close to 20 players locked in for next year. Most are senior men - Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Anthony Boric, the Braid brothers, Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu - and the roster looks set be filled by relatively young, inexperienced players. Loose forwards and back three players are the priority.

The blueprint replicates that of the Chiefs, who had a major clean-out last year and then complimented a mix of established stars such as Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams with a handful of youngsters with enormous potential such as Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna and Sam Cane.

On the fringes of the other four franchises are players who could potentially rejuvenate the Blues if lured north.

Top of the list is Chiefs No8 Fritz Lee, who has barely been sighted this year as he's slipped behind Kane Thompson and Alex Bradley. The Blues have been desperate for a quality No8 for the best part of the past decade and 21-year-old Lee has limited prospects in Hamilton.

The bruising Counties ball-carrier will have to weigh up how much game time he will win in Hamilton, where Liam Messam, Cane and Tanerau Latimer are likely to be around for some time. The Blues have no compelling options at No8, as Jerome Kaino and Chris Lowrey are off to Japan, Peter Saili underwhelms and Brad Mika was only a makeshift loose forward but also won't be with the franchise in 2013.

Lee is dynamic, tough and has potential - something lacking in many previous Blues recruits.

The trick is identifying which of the many young players coming through have the potential to become Super Rugby heavyweights.

New Zealand's under-20s have won four world championships since 2008 and played in this year's final.

Many of those graduates have been contracted in the professional ranks and a few have already become All Blacks. Yet there are still significant numbers of age-grade stars who haven't pushed on for various reasons.

These are the players the Blues are most interested in - and they have been making inquiries across the country.

"I know they have done the rounds on a number of the young players down here," says Highlanders general manager Roger Clark.

"We have, I think, about 22 or 23 players contracted and Andrew Hore has said he will be staying as well, once the details of his contract are worked through."

Clark's point is that the Highlanders, like the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes, have signed virtually all the players they want to keep. Those left hanging are yet to establish their credentials at this level will be asked to prove their worth at the ITM Cup.

Historically, Super Rugby coaches have been a touch blasé about filling the final places of their squad. But the increased demands of the competition and the greater number of games and subsequent injury tolls have shown the importance of having genuinely capable players in reserve.

That's why the Blues have already pounced and signed Chris Noakes for next season - the Highlanders first-five was third choice in Dunedin behind Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga and switched allegiance on the basis he's likely to see plenty of action with the Blues.

Following injuries to Isaia Toeava and Rudi Wulf this year, the Blues had little spark or flair out wide. They need to bolster their options there and are believed to be looking hard at the ranks of the Highlanders.

The arrival of Hosea Gear and Tamati Ellison has seen Kurt Baker and Telusa Veainu being pushed to the margins.

Veainu in particular is a player with considerable promise, having starred on the wing for the New Zealand under-20s in 2010 and then making a major impression with Canterbury in the ITM Cup.

These relative unknowns may not immediately excite an expectant public but the Chiefs have shown that it is possible for youngsters with little experience to make a big impression immediately.

Retallick and Cane were not well known before this year and both are now All Blacks, as is Tameifuna, while maybe the best genuine find was Andrew Horrell; a provincial stand-out for Hawke's Bay in 2011, few predicted he would deliver so much at the next level.

- Herald on Sunday

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