In trying to rid the Blues of their serial under-achievers' tag, coach Tana Umaga's best signing for this season might turn out to be Augustine Pulu, a halfback possessing a ruthless attitude off the field as well as on it.

It has been the 27-year-old former Chiefs player, along with senior forwards Jimmy Tupou and James Parsons, who has been setting the expectations and standards in the pre-season, according to insiders.

There has been no sense of the squad drifting along and waiting for their All Blacks to return before putting the season's foundations in place.

Pulu and fellow Counties player Tupou, a lock who has also made a homecoming of sorts in joining the Blues from the Crusaders and who will lead the team against the Rebels in Melbourne tomorrow, who have been instrumental in adding a harder edge to the franchise's Alexandra Park HQ.


The team's supporters, who have endured more than their share of ups and downs since the Blues' last title in 2003, will hope that brings tangible benefits this season, Umaga's second at the franchise.

For Pulu, the link with Umaga, the former Counties coach who gave him his first opportunity in the national provincial competition as a 19-year-old, is an important one. The former All Blacks captain has had a huge influence over the south Aucklander's career and for that he is understandably thankful.

After languishing as the number three halfback at the Chiefs behind Brad Weber and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Pulu now has an ideal opportunity to take his rugby career back to where it was in 2014 when he played two tests for the All Blacks on the team's northern tour.

He is a muscular No9 - his defence has been noticeable in pre-season, just as it was against Scotland in Murrayfield in his last test when he came on as a replacement and put an enormous hit on an unsuspecting attacker.

And he is also a threat with the ball, a characteristic which Umaga will hope provides first-five Ihaia West with a little more space and time. Given the power and pace among the Blues' loose forwards and midfield, Pulu's ability to spark attacks by getting in behind the defence should put all teams on red alert.

West will probably be assured of the No10 jersey until April, but the return of second-five Sonny Bill Williams from injury could lead to Piers Francis, who will start in the midfield at AAMI Park alongside Rieko Ioane, putting increasing pressure on the first-five.

Pulu is also adaptable - he shone with the New Zealand sevens team last year despite not having a big background in the shortened format of the game - and said his time with the squad has helped his overall game.

"We all know that the sevens and the fitness base [it requires] is a different ball game," he said this week. "It has helped me. Coming back to 15s, I feel a bit sharper."

A sharp halfback is usually a dangerous one, and as Umaga seeks to start the new season in the best way possible against a team with its own consistency issues, it will be Pulu he looks to to set the standards.

Rebels team to play Blues at AAMI Park, kick-off 9.40pm tomorrow (Thursday) is:
15. Jack Debreczeni
14. Jack Maddocks
13. Mitch Inman
12. Reece Hodge
11. Tom English
10. Jackson Garden-Bachop
9. Nic Stirzaker (c)
8. Amanaki Mafi
7. Colby Fainga'a
6. Jordy Reid
5. Lopeti Timani
4. Steve Cummins
3. Laurie Weeks
2. Pat Leafa
1. Cruze Ah-Nau
Reserves: Jordan Uelese, Tom Moloney, Tyrel Lomax, Culum Retallick, Jake Schatz, Ben Meehan, Sione Tuipulotu, Jonah Placid.