After last year's rebuild, the Blues now have match-winning players and an optimistic coach whose message is "bring it on."

Blues coach Sir John Kirwan was asked this week about the pressure on him this season, his second as head coach.

It is pertinent because there was little last year when he took over a busted outfit after the slowly unfolding train wreck of the year before under Pat Lam.

It was a good place to be for Kirwan, the former Japan coach, as he had little knowledge of the New Zealand contracting system and had to watch as All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu left for the Highlanders.

He got by in those early months with positivity, putting his faith in a young team which had plenty of enthusiasm but few stars.


Now it's different. Those youngsters - Charles Piutau, Francis Saili, Steven Luatua and Frank Halai, are All Blacks thanks to their efforts last year in helping the Blues to a sensational start before they limped home with consecutive losses against the Crusaders, Brumbies, Highlanders, Sharks, Cheetahs and Chiefs.

The Rugby Herald team give their expert opinion & analysis on the upcoming 2014 Super Rugby season. Radio Sports Nigel Yalden joins Gregor Paul from the Herald on Sunday and Patrick McKendry from APNZ newswire to 'crystal ball' the season ahead.

Woodcock has returned, as has Nonu. Jerome Kaino, one of the best loose forwards in the world before he left for Japan, is on the brink of returning and then there is the high-profile switch from league of former Kiwis captain Benji Marshall.

The second-year challenge was something Kirwan acknowledged at the Blues squad announcement at Eden Park in October. The honeymoon period was over, he said.

And Kirwan's answer recently about the added pressure on him and his team was just as unequivocal.

"I love it," the former All Blacks wing said.

"I love the expectation. I was brought up with it, I always played with it and I've always had it as a coach. I think it's fantastic. Bring it on."

20 Feb, 2014 3:28pm
2 minutes to read

One of the Blues' strengths has always been their backline firepower and it's no different this year.

Piutau is world class at fullback or on the wing, Halai is a superb finisher and Saili, with his excellent balance and agility, is a handful in the midfield.

Throw in George Moala, a midfielder or wing, and Marshall, a player facing a steep learning curve but with a potential that is likely to bring plenty of fans through the gates, and Kirwan's men have an attacking force which will trouble any defence.

In Charlie Faumuina, a still improving prop, veteran Tony Woodcock the promising Ofa Tu'ungafasi, and hookers Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu and James Parsons, the Blues have an excellent front row.

Lock is their point of vulnerability, Culum Retallick's season-ending injury leaving them a little exposed.

Tom Donnelly, Liaki Moli and Hayden Triggs are Kirwan's senior options there, but he will hope that a loose forward trio of Luke Braid, Kaino and Luatua will help paper over the cracks.

The early draw is reasonably kind for the Blues, but it's not without its fish hooks. A trip to Dunedin to play the Highlanders is followed by a home match against the Crusaders and a trip to South Africa to play the Bulls, who don't appear as formidable as they once were, and the Lions, reinstated to the South African conference probably to make up the numbers.

The sting comes in the tail when the Blues play the Force in Perth, the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Chiefs at home.

That cluster of difficult games will be why Kirwan is determined his team paces the season better than they did last year.

Time, and injuries, will determine whether or not they can.

Stats from 2013
average number of penalty goals per game*

average number lineout steals per game*

average number of defenders beaten per game^

average number of clean breaks per game#

average number of missed tackles per game##

* worst in comp

^ 4th best in comp

# 3rd best in comp

## 2nd best in comp