Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Noakes finds his niche with the Blues

Chris Noakes believes changes to his game are a product of time at the top level.  Photo / Getty Images
Chris Noakes believes changes to his game are a product of time at the top level. Photo / Getty Images

The conversion of Chris Noakes has been another of the significant strands for the Blues this season.

His makeover has been striking; from the steady five-eighths who operated for Otago, Bay of Plenty and the Highlanders to the confident ball-playing pivot with the Blues.

Noakes accepts that observation and thinks he is showing the value of growing confidence, maturity and experience.

A year ago he and Mike Delany job-shared at the Highlanders where his role was to serve a talented backline.

"I did not set the world alight with any attacking play, I was a bit of a fulcrum really to give the ball to others like Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison and Hosea Gear," Noakes said. "It's fair to say I am showing a bit more with the Blues."

Noakes is the only five-eighths among the senior ranks in New Zealand - Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Daniel Carter and Colin Slade - who has not worn the All Black jersey.

But in his two Blues starts, Noakes has shown a taste for the job.

"A strength I think is my vision, getting a team around a field and using my tactical kicking," he said.

Don't ignore Noakes' running, though. He stunned the Hurricanes in the opening game when he dummied through a gap with his first touch and continued with that deception.

"This year, I am a lot more aware of the space around me and things like that after a year of Super 15," he said. "I'm sure it does appear very different from what's gone before."

How does that occur? Is it the influence of John Kirwan, Graham Henry, Mick Byrne or new backs coach Grant Doorey?

Noakes credits them all for adding parts to his game and giving him the confidence to express himself.

"That is one of the big things. It has been a personal thing as well in terms of being more confident and having a crack," he said. "As a first-five you need to help the team as much as you can and if you are not a threat at first-five it makes it a lot easier for defences to drift."

Noakes' impact will be one area the Blues want to spark when they travel to Sydney for their next match tomorrow with the Waratahs.

He suggests changes to his game are a product of time at the top level and a necessary move for all players. Just as Cruden has added a strong kicking component to his base running game, Noakes has looked to produce the reverse.

Noakes studied law and commerce at Otago University, completed both degrees and also continued with his sporting passions.

Then Nick Sheppard from the Blues High Performance unit came calling and asked if he was keen on a shift.

"It was home, I grew up here and went to King's College. I signed on then the Blues changed coaches," he recalled.

Noakes wondered what that meant for him, whether he would be delisted or even taken on by the new regime.

"It would not have surprised me if the new coach came in and wanted to start afresh with players he wanted to use. There was some of that apprehension and whispers about what might happen.

"But I was also excited about the chance to work with John Kirwan and all the other coaches. I was signed before JK and first-five is one of the positions that a coach has to be very comfortable about. He wants someone to play a style which he wants."

So far so good. Noakes had adductor tendon surgery last year and six weeks off running. He has not been goal kicking either but is down for those duties tomorrow in Sydney.

While his rugby repertoire is expanding, Noakes' biggest Super 15 firearm is his brain. He is the professor of the backline, the mainframe to guide the others.

"It is about me being smart," he said. "I am not the biggest guy on the field so I have to manipulate a lot of things.

"If you are not having fun, then for me it is time to give it away," Noakes said. "My favourite thing with these coaches is their rationale. They give reasons for everything they do, it is not just about emotion. You challenge them and they describe their methods and purpose and it becomes much clearer."

Waratahs v Blues
Sydney, 6.05pm tomorrow

Waratahs: Israel Folau, Peter Betham, A. Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne, Drew Mitchell, Bernard Foley, Brendan McKibbin, Pat McCutcheon, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis (c), Kane Douglas, Sitaleki Timani, Paddy Ryan, John Ulugia, Benn Robinson

Reserves: Luke Holmes, Sekope Kepu, Mitchell Chapman, Jed Holloway, Matt Lucas, Ben Volavola, Tom Kingston.

Blues: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom McCartney

Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta'avao, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison.

- NZ Herald

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