Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Blues set to experience the Sonny Bill Williams factor

A tide that once seemed irreversible may have turned for the Blues as they will soon announce other players have joined the club in the wake of Sonny Bill Williams making a three-year commitment.

The club remains determined to largely populate its ranks with local players but external recruitment is needed in certain areas - such as lock - where it is believed that Crusaders utility forward Jimmy Tupou may have agreed to join the Blues next year.

Promising halfback Augustine Pulu, who has played two tests, announced earlier this year that he is coming and coach Tana Umaga says that there are other signed deals yet to be revealed. He is also hoping that a number of players he has spoken to who were previously unsure about joining, may now be reconsidering given the pending arrival of Williams.

"We have got more announcements to make," said Umaga.

Three way handshake - Sonny Bill Williams with New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Three way handshake - Sonny Bill Williams with New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew and All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"We have made some plays and some guys have already made a commitment even before Sonny came along. You just can't help the residual influence having Sonny Bill will have to others. I am sure there will be guys who have another look at it and say if Sonny is going there maybe things are changing. That's not the reason why we have signed him, though."

While lock, because club stalwart Josh Bekhuis is leaving for France, was an immediate concern for Umaga, attention will be focused on finding a first-five.

With Pulu, Williams, George Moala, Rene Ranger, Rieko Ioane and the hugely promising New Zealand Under-20 fullback Jordan Trainor, the Blues will be able to form a formidable backline next year. But they desperately need a quality playmaker - a tactical director at No 10 who can make the most of the explosive and high impact assets.

Damian McKenzie turned them down and Beauden Barrett is expected to do the same, but they will continue to hunt for someone who can drive the team more effectively than incumbent first-five Ihaia West.

The prospect of being in charge of such a backline will be tempting for any aspiring No 10, but recent history has shown that selling Auckland and the Blues to the best players in New Zealand has been an impossible dream.

In the last decade the club has thrown money and opportunity at an endless list of established and emerging players that includes Aaron Cruden, Barrett and Daniel Carter.

But none have come.

Sonny Bill Williams is set to add to his 33 test caps. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams is set to add to his 33 test caps. Photo / Getty Images

Be it the lack of success, concerns about the coaching structure, traffic or house prices, the perception has been locked into players' minds that the Blues are not a club for the ambitious.

That perception has been enhanced, to some extent, by the fact the Blues' have predominantly traded in what could only be termed distress acquisitions. They picked up Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu in 2012, only after both men were moved on by the Hurricanes, where they wanted to be, and had no other option.

Neither delivered remotely close to their potential and the Blues took another step towards being considered a rugby wasteland.

When Umaga accepted the coaching role last year, he knew it was going to be a long, perhaps painful battle, correcting that perception. Reputations are eroded much quicker than they are made. To transform the Blues from a net exporter to importer of talent was going to require significant areas of the club to be improved.

Professional players talk amongst one another, they trade inside information about how life really is under certain regimes. And it's a powerful market.

Super Rugby teams can't really compete for players financially - they are restricted in what they can offer individuals and it's the New Zealand Rugby Union who have to top up contracts.

What it typically comes down for the big names is coaching and opportunity. If players feel they will be exposed to coaches who can help them get better, look after them sensibly and give them a fair chance at establishing themselves, then they will be willing to think about moving.

The Blues, under Umaga, are starting to tick more boxes than they have in a long while and the arrival of Williams could be the catalyst that persuades many more to give Auckland a try.

- NZ Herald

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