Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Battling Blues head in right direction

Wynne Gray runs the rule over the Blues' season under new head coach Sir John Kirwan

Frank Halai (above) showed the type of try-scoring talent available in the Blues region. Photo / Greg Bowker
Frank Halai (above) showed the type of try-scoring talent available in the Blues region. Photo / Greg Bowker

Encouraging signs

New faces

A layer of talent arrived who were new to Super 15 or had just dipped their toes into the tournament last year. Men such as Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Steven Luatua, Angus Ta'avao and James Parsons showed the ability that lies in the region with the promise of more rugby nuggets to be uncovered next season. A couple of older bods like Jackson Willison and Culum Retallick were recruited and consistently challenged the frontline. Sixteen of the squad were new to the Blues and there is optimism from the staff that they will get more from Albert Nikoro, Baden Kerr, Marty McKenzie, Jamison Gibson-Park, Kane Barrett, Brendon O'Connor, Tim Perry, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Sam Prattley in the next campaign.

Results

Six wins out of 16 games does not sound great but it was an improvement by several measurements. It beat the miserable four victories last year and while there were unacceptable losses to the Cheetahs and Highlanders, blow-out horrors like the 35-19 loss to the Hurricanes and 59-12 defeat to the Crusaders last season did not occur. There was a lot more starch to the Blues with the improved attitude and resistance - sporting pillars which crumbled too often in the last year of Pat Lam's regime.

Attacking style

The Blues scored 40 tries and were always looking for the chance to express themselves. They were restricted by the Chiefs (twice), and the Crusaders, Brumbies, Reds, Stormers and Cheetahs, but most sides felt the heat of the Blues' attacking sting. Halai scored 10 tries in a fine season debut, Rene Ranger was a menace and Piutau was always a danger in a side with stacks of flair. On the debit side was the 36 tries the Blues conceded, an area which defence boss Sir Graham Henry will want to tighten next season.

Team spirit

It's an often misunderstood term but the Blues rarely dipped from their team ethic. That showed when they went on their tough road trip to Africa after the June test window, got beaten twice but managed to return and give their final game a real shot even when they were down to 14 men for an hour and later 13 men. Senior men such as Ali Williams, Keven Mealamu, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Anthony Boric and Luke Braid dovetailed with the younger brigade, delivering their knowledge to an inquiring audience.

Staff

Any squad with John Kirwan, Mick Byrne, Grant Doorey and Henry is getting strong tuition. Between them, they know the business of rugby inside and out. Sometimes there were glitches in the synchronisation, the wavelengths did not quite meet. It was a test of the staff's patience because they wanted to wring more from their young group and the exam levels will rise in 2014.

Worrying areas

Stagger to finish

The six in a row stagger to the finish could have been nine. Once the Hurricanes were beaten again and the Blues had their second bye, they lost a tight game to the Reds and just squeaked home against the Stormers and Rebels before the sextet stretch. Those struggles showed the mental toll of the long campaign, the lack of depth in the group and the harder edge needed from more players in the marathon.

Tight five resources

The campaign-ending calf injury after just four games for senior tighthead Charlie Faumuina was a dagger in a front row which had issues before the series started. A late start for Mealamu and then some calf problems reduced his impact, while Boric was a slow burn after his neck surgery. Williams soldiered on through every game with an impact at set piece but his legs were gone in open play. Regular worries about the scrum cannot have helped the Blues' mindset.

Five-eighths

Chris Noakes has a strong rugby brain but his slight frame struggles with the repeated physical demands of Super Rugby, while Baden Kerr is more powerful and shows a calm presence but is learning the game at this level. Settling on the best five-eighths mix for 2014 will be one of the major debates for the coaching group.

Wasting a strong start

Boom, boom. The Hurricanes beaten away and then the Crusaders defeated on Eden Park. The Kirwan-Billy Graham crusade got the strongest possible start before they hit a few staggers, a mini-resurgence and then tailed away. The opening was a mirage and a window into the campaign demands for all. New players are bursting out of their new jerseys at the start of the season before the older campaigners time their run over the top of the fresh puppies. Tough to teach but a lesson there somewhere about hares and tortoises.

Mysteries

One-time hooker Tom McCartney converted to loosehead prop, started seven of the first nine games and then was discarded and not even taken to South Africa. Is the experiment over or will the new engagement law changes keep him in the mix for 2014? Young lock Liaki Moli did not push on when there was a vacancy. He was demoted for conceding silly penalties until near the end of the tournament and needs to channel his aggression better. Midfield back Malakai Feketoa was the only squad member who failed to get a minute on the field. Looked damaging in the last ITM Cup but not considered ready for the next level.

Targets for next year

• A new captain is needed and loose forward Luke Braid should be promoted. Has played more than 50 games in four seasons of Super Rugby, is utterly reliable and effective, busts his boiler each match and is hugely respected inside and outside the group.

• The 8/9/10 fulcrum remains one of the critical selection targets as negotiations continue to sign players to the franchise.

• Tight five quality needs to be assembled. The foundations are there but layers have to be added, loosehead prop sorted and someone such as lock Dominic Bird found and signed to the squad.

- NZ Herald

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