Major issues confront new Blues coach John Kirwan.
The franchise's overbearing hierarchy, selecting a competitive squad and announcing his management team, regaining respect and restoring faith are some, but none may be greater than the growing threat of rugby league.
Kirwan's two-year tenure dictates short-term goals but, for true improvements to be made, he must also set a long-term vision for the troubled Blues.
This past week, in the heart of Auckland, the Warriors trumpeted bold plans for an elite academy and breakthrough secondary schools competition, essentially upping the ante in their battle for oval-ball talent in the region.
Bankrolled by wealthy philanthropist Owen Glenn and businessman Eric Watson, the Warriors openly flaunted intentions to further entrench their influence in New Zealand's largest talent pool. This was no through-the-backdoor approach.
“Bring it on,” Kirwan told the Sunday Star-Times repeatedly when quizzed on his response. “The better they are, the better we have to be.”
Trouble is, aggressive NRL scouts are already superior at recruiting young, raw prospects, promising fast-tracked exposure and big-money deals as they weigh up which sporting path will produce a more prosperous career.
While Auckland rugby sits on its hands, the Warriors continue to pour targeted investment into the right areas; and it's working.
“I know they've [the Blues] been criticised but I wouldn't be here if they hadn't been doing a good job [in development]. There has been a gap, but the next batch of players are going to be really good. If the talent pool wasn't there it would be a poisoned chalice, but it is,” Kirwan asserted.
League's forward-thinking has already paid dividends.
Star Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell and promising fullback Omar Slaimankhel were Auckland Grammar team-mates with a successful future in the 15-man game seemingly mapped out, until the rival code pounced.
Standout Melbourne Storm wing Matt Duffie was also plucked from St Kentigern College, another prestigious rugby production line.
The NRL's weekly televised under-20s competition, where the Warriors are chasing a hat-trick of titles, boasts audiences rivalling A-League matches. That system is unmatched by Auckland's outdated rugby structures.
New Zealand's Super Rugby development teams play only a handful of games well out of the public spotlight.
Before being appointed, Kirwan was a watchful observer of the Blues under-18 team. He was struck by the presence of NRL scouts at the tournament. And it's not just league poaching Auckland's rugby talent.
“This is the biggest talent pool in the southern hemisphere. We've got our work cut out because we've got the NRL and all the other New Zealand franchises looking here,” Kirwan acknowledged. “Bring on the challenge. It's fantastic.”
Kirwan recognises the threat league poses. He did, after all, play 35 games for the Warriors during the Super League era from 1995-96 to conclude his career.
But his “bring it on” perception is indicative of Auckland rugby powerbrokers who, for too long, have believed players would naturally come to them. Part of that is driven by the lure of the coveted, black jersey.
“We can offer a greater pathway,” Kirwan stressed. “The Blues is an avenue to the All Blacks. I started dreaming about that when I was five. My son is dreaming about it. The All Blacks keep great players in the country.
"They accept half of what they could get overseas. That's how strong it is.”
But Auckland rugby is in the foreign position of having to actively peruse at schoolboy level.
Now is the time to act. Relying on tradition, without innovation, is not enough.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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