Galvanised Blues set to be headache for rivals

JUSTIN MARSHALL
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2013

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OPINION: 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.

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.

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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.

- Stuff

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