Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Blues lock down young talent to build for the future

The Blues have placed a lot of faith in their under-21 brigade which includes, from left: Jordan Trainor, Reiko Ioane, Akira Ioane, TJ Faine (top), Sam Nock and Blake Gibson. Photo / www.photosport.nz
The Blues have placed a lot of faith in their under-21 brigade which includes, from left: Jordan Trainor, Reiko Ioane, Akira Ioane, TJ Faine (top), Sam Nock and Blake Gibson. Photo / www.photosport.nz

One thing which will be immediately obvious when the Blues begin the Super Rugby season is the youthfulness of their squad.

Seven are under the age of 21 in the squad of 41, including five from the region - Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Reiko Ioane, Sam Nock and Jordan Trainer - who have signed for four years, signings the franchise believes will hold it in good stead for years to come.

A sixth, midfielder TJ Faiane, won't play this year because of a recent knee injury.

After criticism for allowing Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo to slip through their fingers to the Highlanders, from where they made the All Blacks, the Blues believe they have become much better at holding on to their best talent.

"We have seen a massive increase in the retention of players... Not all of them have taken contracts, but they've chosen to stay in the area because we've had good engagement with them," said Blues high performance manager Tony Hanks.

"If we were in a draft system like American sport, the players we've retained would certainly be top-10 draft picks."

Loose forward Akira Ioane made an immediate impact last season in a struggling team which finished second to last on the table. This year he and brother Reiko, a midfielder, will be on All Blacks sevens duty which will curtail their appearances, but Akira, and fellow loose forward Blake Gibson, proved they could make the step up to Super Rugby level, a leap which provides Hanks with confidence that the Blues' youth system is working.

Reiko Ioane, halfback Nock, fullback Trainer and Faiane have yet to play a Super Rugby match but all are considered big talents.

The relative inexperience of the squad is indicative of Tana Umaga's rebuilding job at a franchise which has under-performed for years.

Captain Jerome Kaino is by far the most experienced of the squad at the age of 32, and lock Patrick Tuipulotu, a 23-year-old who made his Blues debut in 2014, is regarded as a senior player.

Eighty per cent of the squad is from within the Blues region.

Hanks said the departures of Fekitoa and Naholo were before his time.

"We're always going to find if two players leave and make the All Blacks it's, 'Well, why didn't you hold on to them?'

"We can't keep everyone and I think even Malakai has admitted that he learned a lot through the move.

"We certainly think we're getting better. We feel we're pretty robust around any selection we've made. The information we're getting before we sign someone is pretty extensive."

Hanks, a former head of the Auckland Rugby Union's academy who returned to the city after stints at Waikato and Wasps in England, said his youth philosophy was simple.

"If you give them a chance some of them just really take to it and until you put them out there you don't know."

- NZ Herald

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