Memories flood back for Daniel Braid as he recalls the last time the Blues won the Super Rugby competition in 2003. But they are not the ones you might expect from the former Blues flanker.
With the new Super Rugby season less than a week away, we talked to Braid about the city's last big rugby triumph, way back when the competition was still called Super 12.
And, yes, Sir Graham Henry — long seen as the vital 2003 ingredient — does loom large as the 38-year-old Braid looked back fondly at his first Super Rugby foray.
But it's also the funny teammates, a training ground scrap, an eccentric scientist, a nutritionist and less-than-satisfactory training facilities which come into the conversation.
The Blues, under head coach Peter Sloane, captain Xavier Rush and assistant coaches Henry and Bruce Robertson, beat the Crusaders 21-17 in the Eden Park final.
Braid was already an All Black as he embarked on his first Super season that year, having been part of Auckland's 2002 provincial triumph.
As Braid recalls it, the incredible magic of mysterious Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca got the Blues out of jail in their opening games against the Waratahs and Chiefs, the latter when a Troy Flavell indiscretion meant they were down to 14 men for almost the entire match against the Chiefs.
Then came a great moment in Blues rugby, the third round 39-5 mauling of the Crusaders at Albany.
The final was a far different story, however. The Crusaders started well, with hooker Mark Hammett's second try — after Carlos Spencer dropped a pass near his tryline — giving them a 10-5 first half lead.
In the best moment of the match, halfback David Gibson sparked a lovely backline try finished by Doug Howlett, whose elbow-first skid near the dead ball line may not have survived today's video scrutiny.
Then Braid drove over the line from a lineout for a 21-10 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
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"I jumped on the back of an awesome driving mall and got taken over," recalls openside flanker Braid, who played 100 games for Auckland and 80 for the Blues. "I saw a replay recently and I had a massive smile on the face. I couldn't believe I'd scored a try in a Super Rugby final. I thought, 'we're going to win this'."
But the Crusaders launched a wave of late attacks requiring desperate defence to prevent three tries — Braid produced a miracle tackle to deny Dan Carter — although the southerners did eventually cross.
"The crowd was unbelievable: The atmosphere, the old school Auckland chants, a full stadium," says Braid.
Goal-kicking proved a big factor, in a surprising way. Carter and Andrew Mehrtens, who came on for Marika Vunibaka close to halftime, landed one from five between them. Spencer missed one from five.
As the Blues players celebrated the franchise's third title in the Eden Park pool and later at a downtown venue, they could reflect on a year in which they lost just once, to the Highlanders, and announced the arrival of new stars such as Joe Rokocoko.
Henry was technically the technical assistant but his powerful influence was undeniable, says Braid.
Officially the defence coach, "Ted" Henry executed what Braid describes as "mission creep" at training by running his own counter-attack strategies.
"We were always up tempo, aggressive, just out there to play and run," says Braid. "Ted was a massive influence. Look at the guy — everything he touches, they end up winning. He knows what buttons to push, and gives you confidence.
"We had some big personalities, like Kees Meeuws and Carlos Spencer. Xavier was an excellent captain because of the way he'd take control of things and speak to the coaches."
Training could be a rough business in those days. At one early session, Ali Williams went hurtling into a ruck and caught No 8 Ron Cribb badly, with Cribb replying via a "couple of shots to the head".
Braid's other memories include a North American scientist attached to the team as part of his research into how bears in hibernation could be studied. He would measure players' cortisol and testosterone levels, the former reflecting stress and the latter encouraging competitive zip. Too much cortisol leads to a testosterone dip.
Interestingly, Braid recalls that the cortisol levels were found to be high around their only loss of the season in Dunedin. This was probably related to a compressed travel schedule to South Africa immediately after the game. Apparently the hormones were perfectly aligned for the final.
The Blues also came under the influence of nutritionist Glenn Kearney — who went on to work with tennis ace Andy Murray — who was before his time in promoting protein and good fats rather than a diet overloaded with carbohydrates.
And then there was Northland's Fijian lock Vula Maimuri.
"I still meet up with good mates like Gus Macdonald, Dave Gibson, Steve Devine, Justin Collins, Dougie [Howlett] and Derren Witcombe," says Braid.
"We don't really talk about the final as much as the funny stuff that happened. At the start of the year, Vula Maimuri came up with a new way to get a really good result in the 3km time trial, which involved sprinting the first 400m as fast as he could. He blew up completely at the back end. Vula was hilarious."
As a young player, Braid was oblivious to any problems at the time, but now realises the franchise had major issues, including its facilities.
"I don't think we had the set-up to maintain long-term performance. The Blues have an amazing training facility now, one of the good things to come out of the JK [John Kirwan] era.
"But back in those years, we were training in public gyms, waiting for regular punters to finish their bench presses before we could jump on.
"Eden Park had a gym. But we needed a gym that was next to a training ground and the No 2 ground had cricket and there were marquee functions on the back field."
Braid, who sells commercial real estate, lives near Eden Park and gets to Super Rugby games as often as possible. And his heart still lies with the team.
"Every year, I want them to win," says the 2003 World Cup All Black. "I would rather the Blues have won the title than the All Blacks win the World Cup last year. That's how much I feel about it.
"The All Blacks had a really good patch but it has been a long time for the Blues. And look at the TV ratings when the Blues are winning, with the amount of people in Auckland getting into it. Rugby needs Auckland and the Blues to do well again."
The road to the final
The Blues added Graham Henry to their staff as a technical adviser to head coach Peter Sloane in 2003. Henry had returned home after coaching Wales and the British and Irish Lions, and was seen as an All Blacks coach in waiting.
Auckland, with Henry helping out, had won the national provincial title the previous year, but the champion Crusaders went into the Super 12 season as favourites for a fifth title.
But the Blues, winners of the first two Super competitions under Henry, were in rare form. A crowd of 25,000 witnessed a Blues side — minus an injured Rush — end the champions' run of 15 victories in round three thanks to a mobile pack and some brilliance from the likes of Carlos Spencer and Rupeni Caucaunibuca.
The Crusaders, under Robbie Deans, lost three times during the year. They easily accounted for the Hurricanes in the semifinals, while the Blues smashed the Brumbies.
The players missing from the final
The Blues lost halfback Steve Devine as the result of a head clash with teammate Justin Collins in the semifinal. Wonder wing Caucaunibuca was out because of a leg injury, and they had been making do without controversial forward Troy Flavell, suspended since round two for a stomp on Chiefs hooker Greg Smith.
Crusaders lock Norm Maxwell missed out on a fifth final, having torn a knee ligament against the Hurricanes. Maxwell's battered body had just about had enough in terms of top-class service. Devine, who had suffered terrible head knocks playing for the All Blacks in 2002, went on to have a horrible time in an era before the game took concussion seriously.
Caucaunibuca's career never matched his remarkable talent, and the athletic Flavell also ended up falling short of his terrific potential.
Doug Howlett, Rico Gear, Mils Muliaina, Sam Tuitupou, Joe Rokocoko, Carlos Spencer, David Gibson; Xavier Rush, Daniel Braid, Justin Collins, Ali Williams, Angus Macdonald, Kees Meeuws, Keven Mealamu, Deacon Manu.
Reserves: Derren Witcombe, Tony Woodcock, Brad Mika, Mose Tuiali'i, Craig McGrath, Orene Ai'i, Lee Stensness.
Crusaders: Leon MacDonald, Marika Vunibaka, Caleb Ralph, Dan Carter, Joe Maddock, Aaron Mauger, Justin Marshall; Scott Robertson, Richie McCaw, Reuben Thorne, Chris Jack, Brad Thorn, Greg Somerville, Mark Hammett, Dave Hewett.
Reserves: Slade McFarland, Greg Feek, Johnny Leo'o, Sam Broomhall, Ben Hurst, Andrew Mehrtens, Scott Hamilton.
Referee: Andre Watson (South Africa)
Rush held the trophy aloft, leading the Blues team round the field.
Auckland Mayor John Banks said the atmosphere had been unique.
"It was just something terrific. It reminded me of the good old days of the America's Cup," he said. "The public in Auckland were desperate to get in behind something big."
Williams reckoned: "Our defence in the last 20 was huge. It was great fun, I wouldn't be anywhere else."
Herald rugby writer Wynne Gray gave his man of the match award to Crusaders flanker Richie McCaw, awarding him 9 out of 10.
"Superb display from a special player; without him, Crusaders would have lost easily," he wrote.
Backs Doug Howlett, Mils Muliaina and Carlos Spencer were rated the Blues' best.
The Crusaders have won six titles since 2003, the Blues none.
Of the Blues players who appeared in that 2003 final, only Spencer made his way into the top-level coaching ranks, although not as a head coach. Derren Witcombe is Northland coach.
It has been an incredibly different story for the Crusaders, whose No 8 Scott Robertson has coached three Super title winning teams for the franchise, while fullback Leon MacDonald is in charge of the Blues, No 10 Aaron Mauger is boss at the Highlanders and lock Brad Thorn leads the Queensland Reds. Greg Feek is the new All Blacks scrum coach, while Mark Hammett is a Highlanders assistant.
Many of the players figured in what was seen as a World Cup disaster that year, losing to Australia in a Sydney semifinal.