OPINION: The Blues are under the most pressure in this year's New Zealand Super Rugby conference, simply because they have recruited aggressively.
Desperate to kick on from last year's promising start to Sir John Kirwan's time in charge, they have brought in some big names - All Blacks Jerome Kaino, Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Tom Donnelly, along with league convert Benji Marshall.
Look around the other squads and, apart from the drain of talent from the Highlanders, the squads at the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes have remained generally settled in terms of the top talent.
So can the Blues transfer their buys into performance?
I'm not so sure. History has shown that some of the All Blacks are traditionally slow starters.
Woodcock is a bit of a case in point there and we all know that Nonu has a history of proving to be a detraction rather than an attraction.
The Blues certainly weren't short of talent in the midfield with rookie All Black Francis Saili in their mix at No 12.
Kaino's return from Japan will be fascinating. In a rugged position like his, he's going to find the physical nature a bit of a shock again. He's got some big adjustments to make quickly.
And again, the Blues have had a good No 6 develop in his absence, in the form of Steven Luatua. Kaino may well find himself thrust into the No 8 role but your back-row is all about combinations and I'm not too sure that their games will complement each other.
Of course, the biggest intrigue lies with Marshall.
No 10 was the position the Blues needed to bolster most and bringing in a league player is a huge gamble in the most complex position on the field.
History suggests Marshall will struggle and the Blues will consequently struggle with him.
I think their biggest strength remains their coaching department, especially with Sir Graham Henry there, and the fact that their exciting young talent will be better off for last year's experience.
The coaches are probably the most interesting aspects of the four other teams.
I look at the Chiefs squad and wonder how they will achieve a three-peat? But I couldn't really see them winning either of the last two titles. Achieving that has much to do with the talent, passion and methods of Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith.
Irrespective of players coming and going, they have kept the Chiefs on an even keel and have genuinely used their squad to achieve their successes.
Look at No 7, where you often find Sam Cane sitting on the bench behind Tanerau Latimer, which is a luxury.
The Chiefs have shown the ability to pace themselves through the season and that has been a key ingredient to their success.
I'm not sure coach Mark Hammett will have too much breathing space at the Hurricanes if things don't improve.
After angrily digesting the losses of stalwarts Nonu and Piri Weepu a couple of years ago, Hammett got cut a bit of slack by fans. But it's time to perform now, though I really can't see that happening.
Similarly, Todd Blackadder needs to deliver the Crusaders another title.
They have the best squad on paper and although they have been regularly in the playoffs under Blackadder, they haven't gone the whole way.
Richie McCaw is back, which will be a huge boost for performance and morale, though offsetting that is the loss of Dan Carter.
Another sabbatical is another handicap for Blackadder and his team, especially in such a crucial position.
Jamie Joseph's raw squad suggests he's got nothing to lose at the Highlanders, though he will be eager to do better than in the past.
Ironically, I reckon the loss of some of that superstar talent will help the southerners. They will need to be gritty, something they thrive on. I suspect they will lose more than they win but honesty is what they will be judged on.
In the bigger picture, all eyes will be on whether Ben Smith gets time at centre, something the All Blacks selectors will want to see.
There will also be interest in the performance of Argentina prop Matias Diaz. I like the addition of foreign talent to our teams. It's good for the competition.
- Sunday News
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