Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Reasons for optimism at the Blues?

Jerome Kaino's commitment is already leading the way for the Blues. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Jerome Kaino's commitment is already leading the way for the Blues. Photo / Jason Oxenham

It's probably the heat playing tricks on the brain but it's possible the Blues aren't going to be their typical catastrophic selves in 2016.

Optimism in regard to the Blues is not based on the fact they duffed up a Rebels team in Pakuranga on Thursday night.

If the Pakuranga club side had been given the chance, they could have also taken the Rebels apart.

The result meant nothing and in truth, the performance wasn't really the important thing, either.

What mattered was that the Blues looked organised and certain about what they were trying to do. They had structure, patterns, consistency of decision-making and evidence that the summer has been spent wisely and constructively.

What also became apparent in the Blues' first public outing under Tana Umaga is that they have at last dispensed with the gimmicky mantras and motivational platitudes so beloved of his coaching predecessors Pat Lam and John Kirwan.

Instead, what the Blues appeared to have was a genuine desire to work hard for each other. The hunger within the squad, for the first time in an age, appears to at last be intrinsic.

Nothing proved that more than the large contingent of internationals who fronted. Big name players usually avoid pre-season games, treating them with disdain.

But for the second 40 minutes, the Blues had a handful of All Blacks on the field. It spoke volumes that Jerome Kaino was adamant he'd be involved and that he thundered about for the second half looking as fit as he did the last time he played ... at Twickenham in the World Cup final.

His desire to turn the franchise around and restore pride to the region mirrors the same brooding intensity with which he plays. He has two World Cup winners' medals and while he retains serious All Black ambitions, his priority is the Blues.

The example he sets has a major influence. Young All Blacks Patrick Tuipulotu and Steven Luatua were at full noise alongside him, as were George Moala and Rene Ranger, and if there is one early conclusion to reach about the Blues, it is that the senior players are genuinely sick of chronic underperformance.

Desire alone - intrinsic or otherwise - won't in itself transform the Blues. But desire combined with the improved coaching that has obviously arrived with Umaga and the better balanced squad he has picked, gives them some semblance of hope.

The perennial problem of lacking proven quality at halfback and first-five remains and they don't have the depth at lock to support Tuipulotu.

Those issues aside, the 2016 squad, however, looks infinitely better equipped than last year's mob, with the significant added bonus of being built around young, local players who have significant growth potential.

- NZ Herald

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