Time for Ihaia West to stake claim at Blues
Stake a claim at Eden Park tomorrow night, and Ihaia West could seal his long-term future with the Blues.
Auckland's big city life completely contrasts the humble Hawke's Bay, but West's skill set was tailor-made for this flamboyant franchise. Grant Fox thought as much when he first observed West during warm-up drills.
After being called into the squad last month, three cameos from the bench were enough for Blues coach Sir John Kirwan to take a calculated punt on his fourth first five-eighth this season.
Kirwan's confidence doesn't end by handing West his first Super Rugby start against the Hurricanes, who ironically overlooked the playmaker for Tasman's Marty Banks earlier this year.
The squeeze is on at first-five with the Blues. After a long, problematic history in the leadership role, that's noting new. But both Kirwan and West indicated yesterday they were keen on a long-term partnership.
"We've already spoken to him and have got that process going," Kirwan said. "It's been a bit of a whirlwind for him. Hopefully that process will unfold in the next two or three weeks."
The Blues are still on the hunt for an experienced pivot - they would love to convince Beauden Barrett to move north - but Kirwan won't be able to accommodate Baden Kerr, Simon Hickey, the returning Daniel Bowden and West next year. The latter, though, has clearly been earmarked as a genuine prospect.
"That's going to be difficult. It's going to be pretty squashed there," Kirwan said of his current No.10 options. "We're at that stage of the year where we are looking at next year's squad. Like any business, some people can stay and others have to leave."
A largely unflustered lad, West's point of difference centres on his natural attacking abilities - his solo try to help steal the Ranfurly Shield from Otago last year a perfect example of those instincts.
Hickey's steady hand has struggled to unlock the potential of his exuberant outsides and halfback Bryn Hall, who played alongside West with the New Zealand under 17s and 20s, highlighted where the hot-stepping new kid could thrive.
"He likes to play a bit flatter and he's got a good running game so hopefully he can exploit the Hurricanes defence. It's great to see him get an opportunity."
The 22-year-old rookie has enjoyed his managed progression and feels ready to show he can be the future. Initially unwanted by all five Kiwi franchises, he fully appreciates the chance at hand and is determined to make the most of the occasion, rather than be overawed.
"Those games off the bench were a nice way to work into it and get a taste of what Super Rugby is about. I'm definitely looking forward to a start this week," he said.
"I want to be a man that stays in one team and locks up that jersey. I'm looking forward to putting my hand up and hopefully being that person.
"I've really enjoyed my time up here. I love the environment and I'm getting used to the big city and traffic. I'd definitely love to be back."
Marking New Zealand's form first-five in Barrett - the favourite to start against England next month - presents a challenging first-up assignment.
"He's playing outstanding. He's probably the best No.10 going around at the moment. It will be good to come up against him and test myself against the best."
Blues: Lolagi Visinia, Frank Halai, Pita Ahki, Ma'a Nonu, George Moala, Ihaia West, Bryn Hall, Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid (c), Peter Saili, Tom Donnelly, Patrick Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: James Parsons, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Angus Ta'avao, Hayden Triggs, Steven Luatua, Piri Weepu, Simon Hickey, Albert Nikoro.