Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Noakes' fears eased by new coaching regime

Chris Noakes felt nervous when he heard of the coaching changes. Photo / Getty Images
Chris Noakes felt nervous when he heard of the coaching changes. Photo / Getty Images

Last year Chris Noakes questioned his future with the Blues, the new franchise he had signed with while at the Highlanders, as it imploded around coach Pat Lam.

Lam had signed the unheralded first-five before finding his own position advertised as the Blues board became fed up with the constant losses and insipid displays from his players.

Noakes, meanwhile, had a few questions of his own in the deep south as he came to the end of his debut Super 15 season.

"I was excited but, I'm not going to lie, there was a sense of 'well, I'm not too sure how I'm going to fit'," he said of his reaction at learning John Kirwan was to take over from Lam.

"It was a completely different coaching staff and [I wondered] what their kind of game plan is going to be, whether it suits my game plan and how I fit in with it. It certainly ran through my mind. Luckily enough it's worked out well for me."

It sure has. Noakes has been one of the reasons why the Blues have been performing so consistently well this season. Unlike last year when Piri Weepu and Gareth Anscombe rotated in and out of the No10 jersey, Noakes has started every game bar one as playmaker and is a constant and calm presence, directing a talented bunch of teammates outside him he refers to as "my backs".

Noakes' game direction was one of the reasons why the Blues pushed the Reds so close in Brisbane last weekend and he will tonight have to call on all of his guile and organisational skills to find a way through the Stormers' suffocating defence at North Harbour Stadium.

The 27-year-old believes his form is improving again after a good start and a slight dip which coincided with a defeat to the Chiefs and a scratchy win over the Highlanders.

"It's growing, and being the new guy as well you have to earn the trust and respect through being able to boss and direct guys around because if you don't have that it's hard to have the eight guys in front of you doing what you want," he said.

Asked about the time he is creating for himself with the ball, Noakes replied: "That's the beauty of having those sorts of guys outside you. You get a bit more time because people are a little bit more concerned about them."

Noakes, who grew up in Auckland, travelled to Dunedin to study law and found himself playing for Otago and the Highlanders, before shifting tothe Bay of Plenty provincialteam.

"I really enjoyed my time with the Highlanders and thought I fitted in well down there. I knew a lot of the guys through my time with Otago before moving to Bay of Plenty but I guess moving to Auckland there was that unknown.

"A lot of [the Blues players] I had never met before apart from shaking their hands at the end of a game."

The ability of Noakes and his teammates to maintain possession against the Reds in a match they probably deserved to win highlighted how far they have come from last season. Second in the New Zealand conference and fifth overall, they will take on the Stormers tonight with confidence despite the South Africans' win over the Hurricanes in Palmerston North.

"We're bringing in a couple of new sorts of things to our basic structure ... little subtle changes we think will help us exploit the defence. As soon as you're slightly in behind the defensive line it makes it a whole lot easier, especially against such an organised defensive side."


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