There is genuine excitement at Blues HQ. There is laughter in the ranks.

The sandy pot-holed pitch of Unitec has given way to a brand new training base at Alexandra Park and the squad has been disassembled and rebuilt.

There are signs of life at a franchise that has endured an excruciatingly slow death, and the life of the party is once more Rene Ranger.

Rene Ranger is standing outside the sorting shed at the Hira Bhana market gardens on the outskirts of Pukekohe. The Bhana brothers, Blues-mad rugby fans and estimable growers of colossal numbers of potatoes, are hosting their annual team barbecue. There are indian-spiced lamb and pork chops on the menu, cooked on homemade charcoal grills. There are tractors and trucks parked in the barn next to bags of onions bound for France.


Just south, over the next hill, lies Chiefs country. But on this patch of land at least, it's all about the Blues.

Ranger is devouring a lamb chop with all the subtlety of hungry lion feasting on a zebra carcass.

His face is framed by a mane of thick dark hair and a hipster-in-winter-length beard which -- naturally, and thankfully -- has not been subjected to any form of manscaping.

He looks like he has spent the last two years marooned on an island which, in some ways, is not that far from the truth.

France can be an isolating place for foreign players. It was for Ranger. His rugby -- as destructive and chaotic as ever -- was never the problem, but Montpellier is a long way from Taniwha country.

He needed to come home, for his family first and foremost, and probably for his sanity, too.

He was given a compassionate release from his contract and re-committed to the Blues.

He tells me he was really thankful to the Montpellier club for letting him go. They didn't want to.

Then he says something about his new teammate Billy Guyton which cracks up his teammates and makes Guyton shake his head. Earlier that day Ranger had somehow managed to set off a sequence of training ground events that led to Guyton requiring stitches in his hand.

Put it this way, there is not a lot of sympathy for young Billy.

Instead, it's more fuel for Ranger's inextinguishable fire. No one at the Blues is spared Ranger's penchant for a potshot, and that's why they love him: He is the ultimate equal opportunities piss-taker; a man so comfortable with himself that he once turned down the All Blacks so he could finish out the 2013 season with Northland.

I had been with him when he made his extraordinary decision to leave the All Blacks. I knew he had his reasons. Now, beside the old shed at Hira Bhana, and with little discussion required, I could tell he had thought about that day in Christchurch. I could tell that he wanted an opportunity to prove he still had what it takes.

Ranger may be expert-level laconic, but one should never confuse economy of speech with economy of interest.

His last act in the national team was to throw an impossible inside ball as part of a sweeping All Blacks move that would culminate in Beauden Barrett scoring the try of the year against France in New Plymouth.

Three years later, he wants another taste. And he knows the only way he's going to get it is if he plays well for Tana Umaga's Blues.

That's good news for Blues fans. And good news for George Moala, whose partnership with Ranger shapes as one of the genuine box office attractions for a team desperate to win back its fanbase.

Moala, the 2015 ITM Cup player of the year, can only benefit from Ranger's experience and uncanny ability to find space which, as many an opposing player will attest to, is usually straight through or over the top of the bloke in front of him.

And who knows if the Blues will be able to turn it all around? That's one hell of a hill to climb.

What I do know is that they're already having more fun trying, and Rene Ranger's return is worth being genuinely excited about.