Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Capturing the imagination

JK's young Blues side has to play expansive, attacking rugby to reconnect with their fans.

When Sir John Kirwan unveils his Blues squad next week, there will be little reason to believe that 2013 is going to be the year the Blues charge up the table and rekindle the glory days of old.

There will at least be reason to believe that the rot will stop, that the Blues have a youthful side who - with expert coaching and careful management - could, in time, develop into something resembling a title-winning outfit. There will be some short-term pain - a dreaded development season in 2012 - to pave the way for possible longer-term success.

Last year, the Blues won four games. They may not win considerably more next year - six would be a fair return - but a long-suffering fan base may not necessarily think so unless they can be persuaded that there is more to come.

For Kirwan and his coaching team, that means the side has to play expansive, attacking rugby that captures the imagination of the players and public.

There needs to be obvious passion for the jersey, energy, dynamism and clarity about how they play - something sorely lacking throughout 2012. Results can be diminished in importance if the experience of watching the Blues is compelling: if it becomes obvious they have talent and all the other ingredients required to succeed except experience.

"We are going to be young and exciting," says Kirwan. "I think we have got enough experience in the front five and the rest of the side is exciting. The one thing we are missing is the glue - a player such as Mils Muliaina or Ma'a Nonu.

"What we don't have is a lot of experience and the challenge for the coaching group is how quickly we can get the players up to speed. Some we think will come through this year but others might take a bit longer."

Kirwan's not asking for leniency or patience. He knows that will have to be earned and uses the Hurricanes this year to illustrate what can be achieved when a young team connects.

"I think people got the Hurricanes this year," says Kirwan. "They didn't make the play-offs but they knocked over a few good sides, scored a lot of tries and played exciting rugby. So we need to be heading in the right direction emotionally and, if we can do that, then I don't think results will be quite so important. We need to make sure people are excited about coming to the park to watch us."

The last six weeks have shown just how far the franchise has to go on several fronts. Much has been made of the loss of Nonu to the Highlanders without the real question being tackled: why didn't he want to stay?

While his integrity can be questioned, that shouldn't deflect from the fact the Blues had a world-class player who wanted out after one season.

Just as telling was the failure to attract any established names to the franchise. Dan Carter, Adam Thomson, Ben Franks, Jamie Mackintosh and even Israel Dagg all shot down proposals to shift north.

Reasons varied for not coming but the one unifying feature that made them wary was the obvious lack of support Kirwan was being given from the wider Blues set-up.

The complexities of Super Rugby contracting are baffling and Kirwan, coming in late to an alien environment, didn't appear to have enough solid support from those around him.

No one at the franchise saw Tony Woodcock's defection coming, much like they didn't realise this year he would be starting this season late.

Questions have to be asked about the management of key players, especially as Nonu is thought to have felt disappointed at the lack of interest shown in him and his family after he shifted north.

Kirwan's decision to delist Pauliasi Manu was naive and someone with more experience of the contract system should have advised him against the move. Props are like gold dust. If they become free agents, they will be snapped up.

The consolation for the Blues is that Kirwan will know the system next year, know the pitfalls and know what others in the Blues organisation need to be doing to help him. The Blues may also have taken significant steps towards improving the wider perception of them - towards becoming a franchise that appeals to more than just the young and untried who can't get a contract elsewhere.

Some of the young players arriving may surprise with the impact they are able to make. Charles Piutau at fullback is a serious prospect - a potential All Black. Marty McKenzie is another young man who good judges believe could become a quality fullback or first-five. Waisake Naholo is a wing with pace and power and Steven Luatua was already showing up well on the blindside last year.

There is also more depth than perhaps appreciated. Bryn Hall is a feisty halfback who has come through the New Zealand under-20 side, Quentin MacDonald is a dynamic hooker with Crusaders experience and there are two first-five options in Chris Noakes and Baden Kerr who may offer more than anyone expects. The Blues have also signed Taranaki's New Zealand under-20 halfback Jamison Gibson-Park.

- Herald on Sunday

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 20 Dec 2014 04:16:34 Processing Time: 476ms