Rejuvenated Blues looking a million dollars
Have the Blues got the goods to win the Super Rugby title this year?
OPINION: This is a new era of Blues rugby. The first inkling comes when the chief executive and chairman - a pair who were scarcer than rainy days in February when things were unravelling last year - poke their smiling heads into the press box before kickoff and lay on the charm offensive.
That feeling is confirmed an hour-and-a-half later when Sir John Kirwan's youthful Blues dismantle the seven-time champion Crusaders 34-15, five tries to nil, in front of more than 31,000 joyous fans at Eden Park on Friday night.
Two Super Rugby games, two wins and a maximum 10 points in the bank. Even the prince of positivity, Sir JK, admits he's surprised by how well his team has started this rebuilding year. Foundations laid, this thing will be a skyscraper soon the way work is progressing.
"I'm pretty surprised," says Kirwan after a game where his men punished the Crusaders mercilessly for their shortcomings.
"So am I," smiles his skipper Ali Williams, alongside.
Continues the coach: "If you had said to Ali and I sitting having a cappuccino three months ago that we'd have 10 points after the first two games I would probably have given you a million dollars."
Instead, it's Kirwan's new-look Blues who are looking a million dollars. On Friday night they rallied around outstanding performances from flanker Luke Braid and midfielder Rene Ranger, and stunned the Crusaders with some clinical finishing, steely defence and a breakdown effort that got better as the game progressed.
Frank Halai doubled his season try tally to four, Steven Luatua, Braid and George Moala got in on the act, and the creaky Crusaders left Eden Park late in the evening with the distinct impression they'd been ambushed.
"We came up against a team that was well prepared and looked a bit further down the track," admitted a shell-shocked Todd Blackadder.
"From what I saw, they're a bit further down the track than what everyone expected. They played really well and look like they've got some strikepower."
The good thing, from a Blues perspective, is they don't appear to be getting ahead of themselves, despite the dream start.
Though they have excitement to burn in their backs and a pack that looks committed, if a little scratchy at the set piece, Kirwan said there had been less emotion in the coaches' box after the hugfest last Saturday night in Wellington.
"We've got a very young defence coach [Sir Graham Henry] who's pretty happy with the zero tries," reflected Kirwan.
"That shows the courage and commitment the guys are putting out there. It's a very special moment for us as Blues people because this is a great football side that came here.
"We've still got a lot of work to do, and we can get better, but the guys should be proud."
Kirwan conceded a "high-skill, high-tempo, high-impact" approach was going to bring its anxious moments but felt his players had to be trusted to deliver a style they were committed to. "It's a balance we need to find. I think the boys have gone a long way to finding that right balance."
The big crowd certainly enjoyed themselves which Kirwan said was "absolutely fundamental" to any success the team has.
"We want people to have a party. This is our region, and our goal is to have the fan walk open and 100,000 people walking it like they did at the World Cup."
The coaching staff are rightly getting a lot of the credit. But Williams appears to be thriving in his leadership role. He talks about seeing the "desire and passion" in his players' eyes when he talks to them and a collective commitment to a style and plan.
Williams just hopes the fans feel the pride these Blues want to put back in that jersey, and the fun they want to bring with it.
"The fact they got behind us after such a poor season last year sums up the Blues region. They can forgive and forget and they can embrace something new."
"Welcome and enjoy," a beaming Blues CEO Andy Dalton told us beforehand. We certainly did.
- Sunday Star Times
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