Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Blues need a starter for 10

New coach John Kirwan must answer a pivotal question to address his side's lack of success, writes Gregor Paul.

Auckland beat Counties Manukau on Friday but Baden Kerr still impressed for the losing team. Photo / Getty Images
Auckland beat Counties Manukau on Friday but Baden Kerr still impressed for the losing team. Photo / Getty Images

John Kirwan is fond of reminding everyone he's just a simple butcher's boy from Mangere. Only bits of that are true - he's definitely not simple and if the Blues don't make it to a more stable footing during his watch, it won't be for want of planning or thought.

A Super Rugby novice, Kirwan seems unlikely to make novice mistakes and already there is clarity and strategic sense in his acquisitions.

He's assembling a team with capabilities in the present and future and the potential to slowly change the perception of the Blues as a career-killer: a kind of hospice where players go when their domestic dreams are all but dead.

His most intriguing selection has been that of Counties Manukau first-five Baden Kerr. Kirwan is not prepared to burden Kerr or himself with unrealistic expectation, which is why he makes reference to the risks attached in picking a 23-year-old who hasn't had a sniff of this level.

Selection is essentially educated guess work and Kerr may be the one: he may not, but all Kirwan knows is that Kerr has many of attributes he's looking for.

"There is big upside with Baden," says Kirwan. "He's gone through enough adversity to understand what it takes to win at the next level. When it comes to No10 in this competition, you need world class - so do you buy it, do you create it? I don't have all the answers.

"But I think what you must at least have is someone with the character and confidence to steer the side around the football field."

The story of the Blues' continued failure since 2003 has often appeared multi-layered and complex and yet, could just as easily be explained by their inability to find a world class first-five after Carlos Spencer.

The Blues No10 shirt has become a great enigma: no one quite sure why it's been such a problem to find someone it fits. The list of those who have stuck it on and transformed into bumbling shadows of themselves is quite tragically long. Even Nick Evans, a quality All Black, came to the Blues in 2008 and was consumed with doubt.

Kirwan knows the story, knows the problems of the past and accepts the pressure will be impossible to escape for whoever is asked to be the playmaker for the Blues.

That's why Chris Noakes, at 27 and with Super Rugby experience, may be the frontline 10 for 2013. He'd accept he's not an explosive runner, loaded with tricks and touched by magic but he kicks goals, stays composed, picks his options well enough and can put his side in the right areas. Piri Weepu at halfback and Ma'a Nonu at second five (if he stays) can deliver the X-Factor.

Kerr is the long-term option, a player in whom Kirwan sees something extra and the approach with him will be more cautious. A gifted teenager who was on the radar for national age-grade honours, Kerr's career stalled when he injured his back.

It's been a long haul to full fitness and this season has seen Kerr transformed into one of the most impressive No10s in the ITM Cup. And it's that adversity which appeals to Kirwan, himself no stranger to tough personal battles.

Kirwan believes, not exclusively, that the best athletes have endured some form of adversity: that it is tough to build character artificially.

"Baden did his back and has endured some adversity," says Kirwan. "He's now fully fit and in an environment that suits him with Tana [Counties coach Tana Umaga] and he's driving the side around the paddock and playing really well."

By the time Kirwan has contracted 28 players, the Blues will have a similar look to the Chiefs this time last year in that they will be a mix of high profile, top performers and untried youngsters who have been carefully vetted. While Chiefs coach Dave Rennie worked off his Moneyball template, analysing the statistics to find the real work horses and contributors, Kirwan's focus has fallen more on those who fell through the cracks of the national age-grade systems.

It's potentially fertile territory given that in any one year there are bound to be a handful of quality players who were overlooked.

Last year's under-20 side are a potential case in point. They had three first-fives - Gareth Anscombe, Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga. The versatility of the latter two allowed them to be accommodated but imagine if Barrett had stayed off the radar last year?

The jump from ITM Cup to Super Rugby is significant but Kirwan has done his homework and concluded Kerr is more likely to make it than either Anscombe or Michael Hobbs who have both been delisted.

The coach isn't offering guarantees, but he is offering conviction in his own thinking which is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Pat Lam, who reached February this year with no clear plan about who or what he wanted from his first-five.

The simple butcher's boy from Mangere ... no one is buying it.

The Imperfect 10

Since Carlos Spencer left for Northampton in 2005, the Blues have tried 10 men at No 10 - none of whom have been particularly successful or delivered a title.

1. Tasesa Lavea

Recruited from the NRL, Tasesa Lavea played admirably close to the gainline but was on a hiding to nothing given he was the man initially asked to replace the magical Spencer. Lacked the running game, vision and creativity of the man he replaced and Lavea never endeared himself to the Eden Park faithful.

2. Luke McAlister

Was really only a back-up option, as his natural position was 12 between 2005 and 2007. But in 2011, he was there as a first-five. Had a couple of good games before regressing badly - gripped by indecision and inaccuracy, he was shifted back to 12 before his defensive frailties saw him shifted to fullback.

3. Isa Nacewa

An extreme talent with natural ball skills and elusive running, Nacewa adapted well to an unfamiliar role. He attacked the line well, used his outsides efficiently and may have become a good option at 10 had he stayed in Auckland rather then shifting to Leinster.

4. Nick Evans

The All Black back-up came north after a long stint with the Highlanders only to see his form collapse. Got caught up trying to decide whether to head to England or not and became so erratic and loose that he was shifted to fullback.

5. Jimmy Gopperth

Rejected by the Hurricanes, Gopperth brought energy and willing but not poise and control. Wasn't helped by the fact the Blues were in the midst of a rebuilding year under rookie coach Pat Lam and he was never given a platform from which to work.

6. Stephen Brett

Unquestionably the pick of the bunch. Brett had character and guts and always fronted. He made mistakes - too many - but he didn't dwell on them and didn't hide as a result. Was a seriously good runner but never quite had the all-round game to deliver a title.

7. Daniel Kirkpatrick

Picked up in the draft from the Hurricanes as back-up and was rarely sighted. Did at least have the satisfaction of returning to Wellington last year and showing glimpses of the talent that had once made him IRB Junior Player of the Year.

8. Piri Weepu

Came to the Blues uncertain whether he was a halfback or first-five. Dabbled a bit at the latter but the more he played there, the more obvious it became that his best position is halfback and that he's really only a No 10 when needs require.

9. Michael Hobbs

A superb team man with great attitude and application, Hobbs is really a No 12 who can do a job at 10. But his limitations were exposed this year; he's simply not a natural playmaker nor a game manager.

10. Gareth Anscombe

This time last year, he was seen as the future of the franchise but his inability to play in the traffic and desire to sit in the pocket has seen him delisted by new Blues coach John Kirwan. It's a tough call on a player who gave everything and has a number of skills that others don't.

- Herald on Sunday

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