Galvanised Blues set to be headache for rivals

16:00, Feb 24 2013
Blues v Hurricanes
But dad!...Piri Weepu's daughter Keira doesn't look too happy about sharing in her fathers 100th Super Rugby game celebrations.
Blues v Hurricanes
Blues No 8 Peter Saili breaks away during the win over the Hurricanes.
Blues v Hurricanes
Frank Halai shows his control to touch down for a try in the Blues opening win over the Hurricanes.
Blues v Hurricanes
Francis Saili makes a break during the Blues win over the Hurricanes.
Ali Williams
Ali Williams lays down the law to Chris Noakes (centre) and George Moala.
Luke Braid
Luke Braid celebrates during the Blues win over the Crusaders.
Rene Ranger
Rene Ranger breaks the line for the Blues.
Blues fans
Blues fans show support for their team.
Blues vs Bulls
Liaki Moli of The Blues gets caught in a ruck during the Super Rugby game between The Blues and The Bulls.
Blues vs Bulls
Charlie Faumuina on the attack for the Blues.
Blues vs Bulls
Francis Saili looks to pass for the Blues.
Blues vs Bulls
Jurgen Visser of the Bulls and Marty McKenzie of the Blues compete for the ball.
Blues 2013 Season
Brodie Retallick and his cousin Culum Retallick during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Blues at Bay Park.
Blues 2013 Season
Ali Williams of the Blues wins lineout ball during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Blues at Bay Park.
Blues 2013 Season
Luke Braid of the Blues charges forward during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Blues at Bay Park.
Blues 2013 Season
Rene Ranger of the Blues is tipped upside down during the round seven Super Rugby match between the Chiefs and the Blues at Bay Park.
Blues v Highlanders
Anthony Boric prepares for the tackle during the Blues' win over the Highlanders.
Blues v Highlanders
Ali Williams and Kevin Mealamu discuss a plan during the Blues' 29-18 win over the Highlanders.
Blues v Highlanders
Former teammates Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu share a laugh on field.
Blues v Highlanders
Steven Luatua dives over for a try against the Highlanders.
Blues v Highlanders
Piri Weepu celebrates scoring his second try against the Highlanders.
Blues v Hurricanes
James Parson gets past Beauden Barrett to score for the Blues.
Blues v Hurricanes
Piri Weepu gets a pass off as the Blues beat the Hurricanes at Eden Park.
Blues v Hurricanes
Blues captain Ali Williams has a laugh with his side on top.
Blues v Hurricanes
Rene Ranger, Charles Piutau and Andre Taylor clash trying to grab a high ball.
Blues v Reds
Kevin Mealamu hands the ball off to Piri Weepu during the Blues loss to the Reds in Queensland.
Blues v Reds
Rene Ranger tries to fend off the tackle of Jake Schatz.
Blues v Reds
Chris Noakes gets a pass away during the loss to the Reds.
Blues v Reds
Albert Nikora is tackled by James Slipper and Rob Simmons.
Blues season 2013
Steven Luatua of the Blues charges into the Stormers' Andries Bekker during their clash at North Harbour Stadium.
Blues season 2013
Bryan Habana of the Stormers is smashed by the Blues defence during their Round 12 clash.
Blues season 2013
Blues second row Culum Retallick takes a breather during the Super Rugby clash with the Stormers at North Harbour Stadium.
Blues v Cheetahs
Luke Braid jumps over the tackle from the Rebels' Mitch Inman.
Blues v Cheetahs
Rebel Scott Higginbotham looks to kick the ball ahead against Jamison Gibson-Park.
Blues v Cheetahs
Steven Luatua fends off the tackle of Rebel Bryce Hegarty.
Blues v Cheetahs
Francis Saili is mobbed by teammates after scoring a try during the Blues' win over the Cheetahs.
Blues v Cheetahs
Frank Halai dives over for a try against the Cheetahs.
Blues gallery 2013
George Moala charges into the Crusaders defence.
Blues gallery 2013
Frank Halai on the charge against the Crusaders.
Blues gallery 2013
Culum Retallick makes a pass for the Blues against the Crusaders.
Blues gallery 2013
Piri Weepu is closely watched by opposite number Andy Ellis.
Blues gallery 2013
George Moala in action against the Brumbies.
Blues gallery 2013
Rene Ranger on the charge for the Blues against the Brumbies.
Blues gallery 2013
Charles Piutau makes a charge against the Brumbies.
Blues gallery 2013
Ali Williams (centre) lays down the law to his players.
Blues season 2013
Jackson Willison of the Blues is brought down during the round 16 Super Rugby clash with the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Blues season 2013
Blues captain Ali Williams and coach Sir John Kirwan discuss their disappointing loss to the Highlanders.
Blues season 2013
Anthony Boric of the Blues competes with Mose Tuiali'i of the Highlanders in the lineout.
Blues season 2013
Frank Halai makes the hard yards for the Blues against the Highlanders.
Blues gallery
Steven Luatua of the Blues in action during the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Blues from Growthpoint Kings Park.
Blues gallery
Jean Deysel of the Sharks continues play without his shirt during the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Blues from Growthpoint Kings Park.
Blues gallery
Frank Halai of the Blues goes over for a try during the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Blues from Growthpoint Kings Park.
Blues gallery
Chris Noakes of the Blues in action during the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Blues from Growthpoint Kings Park.
Blues gallery
George Moala of the Blues in action during the Super Rugby match between The Sharks and Blues from Growthpoint Kings Park.
Blues gallery
Francis Saili of the Blues fends off Philip van der Walt of the Cheetahs.
Blues gallery
Steven Luatua of the Blues goes for the high ball during their match against the Cheetahs.
Blues gallery
Francis Saili of the Blues in action during their game against the Cheetahs.
Blues gallery
Frank Halai of the Blues in action during their game against the Cheetahs.
Blues v Chiefs
Departing Ali Williams shares a laugh with coach Sir John Kirwan after his last game for the Blues.
Blues v Chiefs
Marty McKenzie in action for the Blues during their season finale loss to the Chiefs.
Blues v Chiefs
Piri Weepu gets a flying pass away during the Blues' loss to the Chiefs.
Blues v Chiefs
Charles Piutau chases the ball down to score for the Blues.
Blues v Chiefs
Kane Barrett leaves the field after a red card against the Chiefs.

John Kirwan, I owe you an apology.

Sorry, JK, but before Saturday night, I thought your Blues were going to be Super Rugby cannon fodder this season.

And while one win doesn't make a summer, the way Kirwan's Blues handled themselves at the Cake Tin against the Hurricanes shows this is a young squad with a future that Auckland's beleaguered fans can genuinely believe in. They might not make the playoffs but the Blues will be of nuisance value all season.

And on the evidence of the first round they will provide more headaches for rival coaches than possibly even JK had hoped for.

The Blues and the Chiefs were clearly the standout sides of the opening round and set a benchmark for the Crusaders, sitting back with the benefit of a bye but now realising the bar has been set damn high after just one weekend of the New Zealand conference.

And what a competitive Kiwi conference it's going to be.

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The first two matches have already demonstrated that and I don't mind admitting that my preconceived notions about certain teams have already been turned on their head.

I didn't expect the Chiefs to so clinically take care of the Highlanders on Friday night, and the cohesion and commitment of the Blues also caught me out.

That shows the rude health of the NZ conference.

While I rated the Chiefs long term, I felt the Highlanders' experience would get them home in Dunedin on Friday night.

I didn't have huge confidence in the Chiefs midfield with no Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui, and I wasn't sure about Gareth Anscombe at fullback, either.

Instead, the Chiefs came out with a forward pack performance right out of the box.

And Tim Nanai-Williams and Bundee Aki were incredibly impressive, while Anscombe showed he may yet be the utility buy of the season.

The go-forward of the Chiefs pack allowed Nanai-Williams to use his best assets, which are his speed and footwork.

He's also provided the likes of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith with a coaching headache, albeit a good one. With Kahui quitting the Chiefs (and All Blacks) at the end of this Super Rugby season, Rennie needs to look to the future.

As amazing as this statement seems, on the evidence so far I don't know if Kahui will find a midfield Chiefs starting jersey as easy to come by as we all thought just a few weeks ago.

As for the Highlanders, on the evidence of Friday night, Jamie Joseph has problems.

That was an incredibly "un-Highlander" forward performance. He'll be hoping the imminent return of Andrew Hore and Brad Thorn adds the steel we all expect of the southern men.

The Highlanders need to find something, and quickly. Defensively, they were very poor and Joseph will be alarmed at how easily the Chiefs' attack broke them down.

The other losing Kiwi coach of the opening round, Mark Hammett, won't be quite so concerned.

I disagree with Mark's contention that the Canes lost this match, rather than the Blues winning it. That doesn't give JK's men enough credit.

The Canes remain an enigma. Last year, they scored more tries than any other NZ franchise and I expect the same this season.

ONCE again, they created a swathe of opportunities on Saturday night. But once again they bombed a lot of chances; the same problem they had last year.

They are a team that will always try things but Hammett needs a better conversion rate.

The Blues took their chances at the Cake Tin and that was the difference.

The early buzz around rugby circles has been that JK has already instilled a better culture and improved discipline at the Blues. They already look galvanised as a team. There's an attitude there now that we haven't seen in a Blues franchise for some time.

Already I can't wait for their match against the Crusaders on Friday night.

The Blues will undoubtedly host the southerners at Eden Park with the same attitude they showed in Wellington and their growing self-belief is a warning for their opposition.

Todd Blackadder would have been impressed by what he saw from his NZ opposition in the first round and I suspect it will reaffirm his belief that in 2013 the Crusaders need to adopt a more attacking mindset and also enjoy their rugby more.

The last point might sound unusual but I can tell you from experience that the Crusaders play their best when they're enjoying their footy.

Sometimes as a professional playing for a living, you forget why you started playing the game in the first place.

The Blues and Chiefs looked like sides that are having some fun and enjoy what they're doing.

Blackadder has talked about the Crusaders getting back to a similar mindset. They'll need it, starting this Friday night.

MARSHALL LORE

■ Nasi Manu is a truly significant loss to the Highlanders, irreplaceable really. How good would it be for the Highlanders to still have Adam Thomson in the No 8 position right now.

■ Congratulations to the Kings and Matt Sexton, the coach, for their first win in Super Rugby. First in the SA conference and third overall. A betting man could have won a fortune predicting that.

■ Israel Folau has an incredible talent with the ball in hand. Problem is, after a couple of years at Aussie rules where they scrag each other, he has forgotten how to tackle!

■ Does anybody want to go watch the Bulls play and see Morne Steyn kick 20 of their 25 points? Come on guys, get with the programme and start scoring some tries, please.

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