Have the Blues got the goods to win the Super Rugby title this year?
OPINION: The Blues look to be following the Chiefs' successful formula in laying the foundations for their rebuild.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting the Blues are going to win the Super Rugby title.
Not yet, anyway. It's early days. But they've come out of the blocks so quickly they have captured everyone's attention with their stunning wins over the Hurricanes and Crusaders.
Anyone thinking their blitzing of the Canes might have been a one-off had to take real notice with their thorough hiding of the Crusaders.
So what's suddenly turned last year's chumps into this year's danger team?
I'd put it down to a couple of things. I always maintain there are two key areas to a successful side - the coaches and the back row.
Let's look at the coaching department. The first thing you do when rebuilding a side is get the right men in charge.
The Chiefs brought in the heavyweight management last season, and nailed their first title. The Blues have done something similar and it's paying instant dividends.
I'd be the first to admit I had a few question marks about Sir John Kirwan, mainly because he's been forced to operate with poor quality international teams. He's been away so long, we really didn't know his true coaching worth.
It was a clever move to bring an iconic Aucklander into the heart of this rebuilding project. But Kirwan took that a step further - his masterstroke was to assemble some real class around him in the form of Sir Graham Henry and All Blacks handyman Mick Byrne.
And it seems by the way the backline is going that Grant Doorey is worth his appointment. Quality men like these don't just coach, they create a culture.
When you see Kirwan also bringing in Michael Jones, Joe Stanley and Buck Shelford, it's clear he values the traditions that made the region such a powerhouse at the height of the NPC and the early days of Super Rugby.
And what about the back row? Individually, Luke Braid, Peter Saili and Steven Luatua aren't world-beaters but right now their collective force has proved too much for Hurricanes and Crusaders teams boasting All Blacks in their own loose forward trios.
That's another example of quality coaching. Kirwan and his assistants are squeezing everything out of his players right now - both young and old - and there's a good chance these guys will only get better.
People will focus on the work of stars like Rene Ranger and Piri Weepu and the emergence of Chris Noakes. But for me, winning the battle of the loose was a key to beating the Crusaders.
As for the Crusaders, well, again, it's early days and they won't be pushing the panic button just yet. There's too much class there. But there's no denying this is a big year for Todd Blackadder and his team as they look to end their title drought.
You sense a bit of internal pressure. Blackadder made some big calls in the off-season and that cost him the services of his long-term assistant Daryl Gibson. Has Blackadder got it right in bringing in Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger to his coaching department? These are great red and black men but perhaps Blackadder should have cast his net a bit wider.
If you look at last year's struggles for the Crusaders, most of them came when playing Israel Dagg on the wing and George Whitelock and Matt Todd as their flankers. That was the case again on Friday night at Eden Park.
When you've got arguably the world's best fullback in your squad, he should be wearing the No 15 jersey. It's as simple as that for Dagg - get him back to where he's most dangerous.
As for the back row, Kieran Read was a bit of a lone figure against the Blues. Unlike last season, the concern for the Crusaders this year is that Richie McCaw won't be coming back to rescue them in this key area.
Looking at the competition overall, it's clear that the standard is rising. The quality of the squads is more even as the Blues have shown with their remarkable start.
I rubbished South Africa's new side, the Southern Kings, last week and that came back to bite me as they got a first-up win.
I'm still going to say the Kings will struggle overall as this championship unfolds but it's clear some of the lower-ranked sides are going to ensure there are few easy games and that's what you want in a competition.
You also want your teams supported and it was great to see a bumper crowd turn up to watch the Blues at Eden Park.
On the basis of what they saw, plenty of them will be returning and others watching on TV will be tempted to get a ticket to the real thing.
- Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain
- © Fairfax NZ News
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