Former All Black Jimmy Cowan has quickly made himself comfortable in Auckland to the point where he is turning halfback into one of the most contestable positions at the Blues.
Signed by John Kirwan as a replacement for Piri Weepu, Southlander Cowan is in a three-way fight with incumbent Bryn Hall and Jamison Gibson-Park for the No9 jersey. The trio have been told by Kirwan that their form in tomorrow afternoon's pre-season match against the Hurricanes at North Harbour's QBE Stadium will determine who starts the following week in round one against the Chiefs at the same venue.
Cowan's form for Tasman in last year's ITM Cup after his three-year stint at Gloucester earned the former Highlander his contract at the Blues, but even the supremely optimistic Kirwan must have been surprised at how he has taken to things.
It is understood that new skipper Jerome Kaino has quickly brought Cowan into a leadership group also containing Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Luke Braid and Charles Piutau and that Cowan, who turns 33 next month, is leading by example.
Hall was the big mover last year, capitalising on Weepu's poor form and then stroke scare with his quick running game, but Cowan has quickly put the pressure on.
"I just spoke to [the halfbacks]," Kirwan said after training yesterday. "They've all played really well in pre-season ... I'm going to play them evenly this week, starting with Jimmy, and the best guy who does his core roles well and runs the football team will get the nod for the following week, so there's good pressure on."
Kirwan made a joke about Cowan being offered a flat white coffee at Blues HQ in order to feel like he was truly in Auckland, but the coach knows the competitiveness the 51-test All Black brings is no laughing matter.
"We're enjoying what he's bringing which is leadership and voice and he's bringing a hard edge, which is what we need."
Kirwan will have all of his All Blacks - Kaino, Piutau, James Parsons, Woodcock, Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua - available for the Chiefs match a week on Saturday.
However, one player missing will be Dan Bowden, the former Highlander and Crusaders inside back signed by the Blues after four years overseas. Bowden "popped" a ligament in his right foot during last week's pre-season loss to the Chiefs in Whangarei and could be in doubt for the Blues' trip to South Africa for rounds two and three.
It appears Ihaia West has the inside running at No10, a problem position last season, over Simon Hickey.
Kirwan said Woodcock, who didn't play for the All Blacks last year because of shoulder problems, had enjoyed a full pre-season and would play in the final warm-up match tomorrow.