Steven Luatua poised to deliver for the Blues
He was one of the big movers in New Zealand rugby in 2013, and Blues loose forward Steven Luatua says he's ready to assume an even greater responsibility at the franchise this year.
Luatua makes his return to the field for the Blues in tonight's final pre-season game against the Chiefs in Rotorua, and the exciting All Black rookie of last year is pumped to put his learnings from the back half of 2013 into action.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan has attracted some big names back to the franchise, including internationals Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu, but he's also putting a lot of stock into his quartet of young stars making further strides off the back of their All Black breakthroughs.
Luatua was happy to concede that he, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai all had a responsibility to deliver for their franchise after what they'd learnt as part of Steve Hansen's setup in 2013.
"We've been exposed to the higher level now, so there's a lot more expectation from ourselves and from everyone else as well," said the 22-year-old who featured in 11 tests in 2013. "We're going to try to bring this team through, whether we are leading or following."
Luatua felt he was a much better player on the back of those test experiences, and the prospect of him and Kaino (when he arrives from Japan) working together in a blockbusting loose trio is exciting to say the least.
"You've just got to be ready to perform, because you're judged on your performances on the field," he said. "Through the grace of God we were able to play for the All Blacks, and that's something I want to bring back to the Blues and be consistent each week."
But talent doesn't guarantee wins, as the Highlanders found out last year, and Luatua reckoned one factor was paramount for the Blues this year.
"The old saying is hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. We've got to be students of the game this year. Talent is all good and well but if you don't know the game, and understand the game, you're going to fall short."
Luatua was "excited" to be back playing, said his body was good and he was planning on around 40 minutes of footy. He was looking for a strong all-round performance in the final hitout ahead of next Saturday's season-opener in Dunedin.
As usual, all eyes will be on Benji Marshall in his third straight pre-season start at No 10. He clearly has the inside running to start against the Highlanders.
Veteran halfback Piri Weepu, who will make his first appearance of the year, felt the celebrated league convert was making excellent strides.
"He's been asking a lot of questions, and all the right questions to help him develop as a player. It will be good to play alongside him," Weepu said.
The 30-year-old has not thought about whether this would be his final Super Rugby campaign.
"I always take it year by year, so we'll see how things go. At this stage it's about doing everything possible to help this team. I guess at the end of the season we'll worry about what's going to happen after that."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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