Richard Loe

Richard Loe is a former All Black and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Richard Loe: Kirwan's young squad looking to go places

Coach Todd Blackadder of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images
Coach Todd Blackadder of the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images

If I was John Kirwan, I wouldn't be all that worried about what many people see as an overly young Blues side. But if I was Todd Blackadder, I'd be worried about the pressure starting to mount on the Crusaders.

Kirwan seems to have done a good job with what was available to him. He's gone for youth and, talking to him the other day, he's really gone hard on looking for people on the rise. I noticed he had 13 in the squad who are 22 and under and that's a lot - but he's looked for young guys who want to go places and that can be a really interesting mix.

It's been a tough introduction to Super Rugby. Kirwan's immediately been subjected to the 'Auckland curse' - the fact that many players do not want to go there after hearing stories about problems within the franchise. There's been all sorts of talk in the rugby fraternity, including that the franchise administration and board have not backed up their coaches over the years.

Let's face it, what's been wrong with the Blues has taken root over a number of years. And it wasn't just down to Pat Lam - as coach, he was just the first one to get shot. The Blues have been seen as having problems right back through Ali Williams and his scrape with David Nucifora; players have noticed that the Blues have a track record of overlooking or dumping people who go on to star elsewhere (Ron Cribb comes to mind); and Ma'a Nonu's recent departure won't have helped perceptions.

As a former player, the story I found most unsettling was the tale about the coaches issuing instructions from the grandstand and being ignored, or sending out a team with a game plan, only for them to do their own thing. Lam talked about that a couple of times and that sends a signal of a franchise where all is not well.

Having said that, Kirwan has done a good job so far of leading the Blues out of all that with his passion and enthusiasm. It could be a long season for him but, then again, Jamie Joseph had a young squad a couple of years ago and look at it now. Mark Hammett had a young side once he did his pruning last year - and they did pretty well. Even Dave Rennie had a shake-up at the Chiefs.

In other words, Kirwan can set the platform for growth at the Blues.

It's a bit of a different story at the Crusaders. The rugby public in Canterbury is growing impatient. Four years without a title is an era, in Canterbury terms, and the pressure is growing. I saw a report saying that Toddy admitted the pressure of attempting to win a title at the Crusaders affected his decision-making last season and he vowed not to fall into the same trap again. Well, the pressure won't be any easier next season.

Daryl Gibson has gone after being made what you might call a bit of a scapegoat. He was the backs coach last year but the franchise split his job into attack and defence and offered him the defence bit and it was clear he wasn't a happy camper.

I also found it interesting that Wellington Lions coach and New Zealand under-20 coach Chris Boyd opted to stay where he was when the Crusaders came calling. Turning down the country's most successful Super Rugby franchise is an interesting choice - and it led a lot of people to read between the lines and wonder if all was as well at the Crusaders as it might be.

There'll be pressure on Hammett, too, to live up to the promise shown by his young team last season and Rennie will have the unusual burden of being defending champions.

Joseph has assembled a likely-looking side but the expectations will be on them to perform well - and that brings its own pressure.

So the pressure isn't all on Kirwan. Not at all. It will be a fascinating Super Rugby season and I, like a lot of people, will enjoy seeing the fresh new talent on show.

- Herald on Sunday

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