Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Blues vindicated by selections

Recent Sundays have been sombre affairs for the Blues but their haul of six All Blacks today gave them vindication of sorts they are on the right track.

Converting raw talent into test players has been a secondary yet important goal this year for coach John Kirwan. It's part of the virtuous circle he wants to create: deliver consistently excellent collective performance and the by-product will be the promotion of individuals to the All Blacks: the more players exposed to test rugby, the more likely they will return to the Blues and deliver consistently excellent performance.

"If we get more All Blacks then they are going to learn about preparation," he says. "and they are going to get better at preparing themselves which will be better for me."

Clearly, given that the Blues found themselves 29-0 behind after 30 minutes of their clash against the Highlanders, something, as it did with the Brumbies, had gone wrong with the individual and collective mind-set.

The bonus point they managed to collect for scoring four tries was the perfect illustration of the challenge Kirwan faces with his young team: they are imminently capable of playing quality, expansive, high tempo rugby - but only in bursts.

The elevation of Steven Luatua, Francis Saili and Charles Piutau to All Black status will, presumably, see them return to Super Rugby action later this month with greater maturity, understanding and composure.

On the intangible front, the promotion of those three improves what has been a somewhat galling statistic for the Blues.

The franchise has a strangely poor record in the production of test players. While the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes seem to spit them out, the Blues have managed to push just three men into the test arena since 2009 - Benson Stanley, Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina.

The failure to identify, nurture and refine local talent into the finished product had been a constant lament prior to Kirwan landing the coaching job late last year. With the country's largest playing base and a First XV schools competition that is envy of the world, it was incredulous almost that the Blues not only continually languished as a mid-table drifter, but that they continually overlooked local players who would go on to flourish elsewhere or pick individuals who showed early promise but failed to kick on.
After only a few weeks of assessing Luatua, Saili and Piutau, Kirwan could immediately see they were potential All Blacks. He knew that Ranger, capped twice in 2010, also had the potential to be rejuvenated and cajoled back to his best. He's also hopeful that Frank Halai, left out this time having made the wider training squad, will earn promotion later this year.

"Frankie is the dark horse for me," says Kirwan. "He's been very, very solid. Francis is just hugely talented and he's going to go a long way. Charles is another X-Factor player for us, as is Steven Luatua.

"We need to make sure we keep developing these young guys. They are really disappointed with the performance [the 38-28 loss to the Highlanders]. They have to make sure they learn about consistency of performance and that it is a grind. We probably have not done well in the grind but they will learn that and the more exposure they can get to international football, the better they will be for us."

All Blacks squad:

Hookers: Dane Coles, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu
Props: Ben Afeaki, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock
Locks: Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Jeremy Thrush, Samuel Whitelock
Loose forwards: Sam Cane, Steven Luatua, Liam Messam, Kieran Read, (c)Victor Vito
Halfbacks: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Smith, Piri Weepu
First five-eighths: Beauden Barrett, Daniel Carter, Aaron Cruden
Midfielders: Ma'a Nonu, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, Conrad Smith
Outside backs: Israel Dagg, Charles Piutau, Julian Savea, Ben Smith

- Herald on Sunday

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