Experience counts for Kirwan's new Blues
Experience and authority gave Chris Noakes the nod over Baden Kerr at first five-eighths in Sir John Kirwan’s first Blues lineup to face the Hurricanes in the capital on Saturday night.
Kirwan’s new look Blues will launch their season with as experienced an outfit as they could have put on the field, allowing for the extended break being taken by veteran All Black hooker Keven Mealamu.
All Black halfback Piri Weepu will make his 100th Super Rugby appearance and enigmatic midfielder Rene Ranger his 50th in a Blues starting lineup featuring just one player – blockbusting Counties wing Frank Halai – making his debut at this level.
There are three others on the bench – Kerr, flanker Brendon O’Connor and halfback Bryn Hall – who will have their first taste of Super Rugby if they take the field at the Cake Tin.
Kirwan’s pack has a pretty seasoned look about it, where new skipper Ali Williams is joined in the second row by off-season addition Culum Retallick (ex Highlanders and Chiefs). Loose forwards Peter Saili, Luke Braid and Steven Luatua all played for the Blues last season, as did the front row of Tom McCartney (now a fully fledged loosehead prop), James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina.
Weepu services a backline somewhat less experienced. Outside Noakes, who has played a dozen Super Rugby games for the Highlanders, Halai debuts at this level, while second five Francis Saili, wing George Moala and fullback Charles Piutau can all lay claim to only fleeting experience.
Kirwan said Noakes got the nod over a fast-improving Kerr because, at 27, he offered a quality his rival is not yet able to call on.
“It’s just his experience,” said Kiwan. “He’s been pretty commanding when he’s been out there, and that’s been a real positive. We’re a young, inexperienced football side and he brings us a little bit of calmness.”
Kirwan said there had been close selection calls right across the board, but particularly in the loose forwards, where O’Connor and new face Kane Barrett had pushed hard for consideration. He added it was a squad picked fairly and squarely on form.
“We said to the players put us under pressure [to select you] and they did that. The bench was also an interesting combination in how were going to make sure we had the cover needed. But all the boys really stood up, especially some of the young guys.”
Some are predicting that 1.95m, 105kg wing Halai could be a potential superstar of the competition, with his mix of size, speed and sevens razzle-dazzle.
But Kirwan said it was “unfair” to put that sort of pressure on a player who has yet to play at Super Rugby level.
“Frank has had a good pre-season and deserves his start and if he plays to his potential he could be in everything. But to get the ball to him the other 14 guys need to be going pretty well.”
There is also plenty of interest in how Piutau fares at fullback after his promising final two games for the Blues last season was followed by a standout provincial campaign for Auckland.
Kirwan also noted that the Blues would be inspired to play as hard as they could for Weepu as he reaches his special milestone against his former team in front of his former fans.
“He’s got a lot of emotional tied to the Hurricanes and Wellington, and as his new whanau we want to make him proud by performing for him.”
Kirwan also said his own emotions were more about excitement than nerves as he prepared for a day he had been thinking about for pretty much the last six months.
“That excitement is being brought by the players,” he added. “We need to express ourselves. We’re starting something new on Saturday and after the game, regardless of the result, I want people to see that and feel that.”
Kickoff is at 7.35pm at Wellington’s waterfront stadium on Saturday night. The Hurricanes are $1.50 favourites with the TAB.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Rene Ranger, Francis Saili, George Moala, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu; Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Culum Retallick, Charlie Faumuina, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Angus Ta’avao, Liaki Moli, Brendon O’Connor, Bryn Hall, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison.