With the season over for most New Zealand Super Rugby franchises, Gregor Paul runs the rule over those who did not make the play-offs and looks ahead to 2013.
2011 Finish: Fourth.
Overall: Where to begin? Unbelievably awful season where they inexplicably imploded. Lost Jerome Kaino and Isaia Toeava early in the season and they collapsed; defensively they were among the worst in the competition in terms of points and tries conceded and were regularly scythed open from first phase possession. Had no direction from their playmakers, no finishing on the outsides and no punch in the midfield. The lineout was a shambles, they were missing bite at the breakdown, played too much rugby in their own territory and were blighted by pedestrian and inaccurate execution of the most basic skills.
Improvements: Scrum was mainly good and when they had their preferred front row of Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Charlie Faumuina together, it was one of the best in the competition.
Best Find: Steven Luatua is a level-headed, bruising loose forward who could be the perfect replacement for Kaino.
Disappointments: Weeks one to 18.
Best Performance: Amazingly the Blues beat the Bulls in round three - in Pretoria. But that had more to do with the home side being disturbingly off their game.
Ins and Outs: Kaino, Toeava and Chris Lowrey are heading to Japan; Benson Stanley, Tevita Mailau and Lachie Munro are going to France and Rudi Wulf wants to sign with Toulon but is under contract for another season. Brad Mika is moving on but doesn't know where and a host of others, most notably Alby Mathewson are unsure whether they are wanted or not. On the plus side, Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu will almost certainly be staying.
Goal for 2013? Much depends on who is appointed head coach with an announcement expected early this week. The best outcome, given the shortlist, would be for Sir John Kirwan to be installed. He has strong links to Auckland, is charismatic, popular and capable. But it is believed the New Zealand Rugby Union are wary of appointing Kirwan - an All Black team-mate of chairman Gary Whetton and chief executive Andy Dalton. That scenario would raise concerns about being too comfortable - of lacking a dissenting voice.
To counter it, the NZRU may try to enforce some administrative restructuring - most notably splitting the Auckland and Blues chief executive roles. Aside from the conflict of interest, the Blues job is itself more than enough for one man given the increased size of squad and associated contract negotiations and because the Blues are trying to build a high performance centre in Ellerslie. A different man at the helm of the Blues, or at least an NZRU-installed general manger to focus on the playing side, would appease concerns about an old boy cartel.
But to complicate matters, Sir Graham Henry, on the panel determining the new coach, may make a compelling case to retain Pat Lam. Henry is the ultimate proof that continuity through adversity is imperative.
Whoever lands the job, the five key goals for 2013 should be:To become the best defensive side in the competition with the lowest points and lowest tries conceded.To develop an attacking style of rugby that engages players and fans and be the competition's highest try scorer.To identify and contract long term, potentially world class prospects at hooker, lock, No 8, halfback, first five and fullback.To win 90 per cent of their lineouts while also becoming the best side in Super Rugby at stealing or disrupting opposition throws.To build their home crowd by 10 per cent.
2011 Finish: Eighth.
Overall: Their season was eerily similar to last year in that they started better than they finished - winning seven of their first 10 games then only two of their next six. Their game plan was built on the ferocity and accuracy of their counter-rucking and ability to exploit turnover ball. They looked to raise the tempo and work the ball from touchline to touchline.
Improvements: Their tempo game went up a level and much of that was due to the input of Tamati Ellison and Hosea Gear while Ben Smith guided them well from fullback. Aaron Smith was the star - firing flat, hard passes that allowed them to develop the width they were after.
Best Find: Ellison wasn't actually a find as such but he was the best acquisition - providing accuracy, direction and penetration from centre.
Disappointments: Their scrum lacked bite given the personnel and Jarrad Hoeata regressed from the storming force he was in 2011. The campaign fade was less to do with fatigue and more to do with their failure to advance their tactical approach. They didn't have an alternative to the wide-wide game - no kick and chase, or slower, territorial approach to keep defences guessing.
Best Performance: The respective defeats of the Bulls and Crusaders were inspiring - gutsy, brave and skilled.
Ins and Outs: They already have 20 players coming back next year and have retained the key men: Smith and Smith, Gear and Ellison.
The two big names not secure are Adam Thomson and Andrew Hore - but talks are ongoing. They have definitely lost Jimmy Cowan and James Haskell.
Goal for 2013? Sustain their momentum, develop a wider range of tactical ploys, get more out of their scrum and find a halfback to support Smith.By Gregor Paul Email Gregor