With a little over 3 weeks remaining before the kick-off of the 2009 S14 season Rugby 365 brings us a preview of each team for the season along with some predictions. We’ll Start off with the Blues.
As one of the early pace-setters in Super Rugby, back when it was still the Super 12 during the infancy years of professional rugby, there is high expectations of the Blues every year.
However, apart from a fourth-place finish in 2007, the pride of Auckland and its partner unions – North Harbour and Northland – have not reached the same heights that saw it win back-to-back titles in 1996 and ’97, being runners up in ’98 and winning a third title in 2003.
Having lost a host of senior players from last year, with 10 new faces in the 2009 squad, not to mention an entirely new coaching panel, it is going to take a lot of commitment to get into play-off range.
The enthusiasm shown by the players in the pre-season build-up was admirable and there was an air of unfinished business from some of the established players.
But if Auckland’s Air New Zealand Cup campaign is any indication of what’s to come, this could be a painful transitional season.
Strengths: The Blues’ talent pool looks impressive – especially with names like John Afoa, Josh Blackie, Justin Collins, Jimmy Gopperth, Jerome Kaino, Tasesa Lavea, Keven Mealamu, Joe Rokocoko, Benson Stanley, Anthony Tuitavake, Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock in the mix. New coach Pat Lam also allows his charges to play an exciting all-action brand of rugby.
Weaknesses: The Blues were let down by a mid-season slump last year – when they lost five matches in a seven-week stretch, and that after collecting a full-house of 15 points in their first three rounds. That slump saw them lose out on a play-off spot by a single point. It was a lack of clear leadership and inexperience which cost them dearly in 2008 and could again be a problem this year.
Noteworthy signings: Josh Blackie (from the Highlanders), Jimmy Gopperth (Hurricanes), Michael Hobbs (Wellington), Tasesa Lavea (Chiefs), Chris Smylie (Highlanders), Ali Williams (Crusaders), Jay Williams (Chiefs), Paul Williams (Highlanders)
Noteworthy losses: Daniel Braid (move to the Reds), Nick Evans (Harlequins in England), Troy Flavell (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
Coach: Pat Lam has signed to coach the Blues for three years, with the 39-year-old Lam having coached the Auckland Air New Zealand Cup side since 2004 – with his unbeaten Auckland side winning the Air NZ Cup in 2007 and securing the Ranfurly Shield. He takes over from David Nucifora, who returned to Australia after making the play-offs just once in his three year in charge.
Captain: Keven Mealamu will captain the Blues in 2009, after having shared the role with Troy Flavell in 2007 and Flavell taking charge last year. Mealamu is widely regarded as one of the best hookers in the world with 65 test caps for the All Blacks. He is an accurate line-out thrower and strong scrummager, but his running game is a real strength and makes him almost a fourth loose forward.
Player to watch: Michael Hobbs is a highly regarded first or second five-eighth, who debuted for Wellington in the 2008 Air NZ Cup after two years living in Brisbane and contracted to the Queensland Rugby Academy. The 20-year-old is the son of former All Black captain and current NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs. He is an incisive runner and skilful player, with astute kicking and defensive games. He has represented New Zealand at Secondary Schools and Under-19 levels.
2008 Position: Sixth
Best finish: Super 12 champions in 1996, 1997, 2003
Worst finish: 11th (2000)
Home Venues: Eden Park, Auckland (Capacity: 50,000), North Harbour Stadium, Albany (Capacity: 25,000)
2009 Prediction: They secured the services of a few seasoned players, most notably the return of All Black Ali Williams from the Crusaders and no doubt they will have a crucial role to play. But apart from the many personnel changes – including a new coaching panel – they also seem to lack real experience. They will struggle to finish in the top half of the table.
Blues squad: John Afoa, Onosa’i Auva’a, Josh Blackie, Anthony Boric, Justin Collins, Charlie Faumuina, Jimmy Gopperth, Kurtis Haiu, Jamie Helleur, Michael Hobbs, Jerome Kaino, Tasesa Lavea, Chris Lowrey, Tom McCartney, Tevita Mailau, Keven Mealamu, Taniela Moa, Rene Ranger, Joe Rokocoko, Chris Smylie, Benson Stanley, Isaia Toeava, Anthony Tuitavake, Ali Williams, Jay Williams, Paul Williams, Tony Woodcock, Rudi Wulf.
13 February: v Western Force, away
21 February: v Bulls, away
28 February: v Stormers, away
07 March: v Sharks, home
13 March: v Cheetahs, home
21 March: v Chiefs, away
27 March: v Waratahs, home
10 April: v Lions, home
17 April: v Highlanders, home
25 April: v Reds, home
01 May: v Hurricanes, away
09 May: v Brumbies, away
16 May: v Crusaders, home