2015 season preview: Blues

12 Feb 2015
2015 season preview: Blues

As always the Blues entered the 2014 campaign with high hopes, being New Zealand’s largest rugby centre by population tends to do that, and their third round win over the Crusaders only amplified the early hype.

Their first win in Auckland led to a remarkable record at home, losing just one game at Eden Park – but the Blues were anything but road warriors, claiming just one scalp while travelling (including a loss in Albany).

Add to this a perfectly symmetrical win loss record – losing one, winning one, then losing two and winning two all the way to the end of the season – ensured the three-time champions were unable to generate any consistent momentum.

IN: Josh Bekhuis (Highlanders), Daniel Bowden (Leicester Tigers), Jimmy Cowan (Gloucester), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Ben Lam (Auckland), William Lloyd (Auckland), Matt Moulds (Northland), Melani Nanai (Auckland), Hamish Northcott (Manawatu), Greg Pleasants-Tate (North Harbour), Matt Vaega (North Harbour)
OUT: Kane Barrett (Released), Tom Donnelly (Montpellier), Baden Kerr (Released), Benji Marshall (St George Illawarra Dragons), Tom McCartney (Connacht), Liaki Moli (Released), Albert Nikoro (Force), Chris Noakes (London Irish), Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes), Peter Saili (France – TBC), Piri Weepu (London Welsh), Jackson Willison (Grenoble)

Last year: Sir John Kirwan’s troops sat out the first round of action, and were then thrust into action with a derby in Dunedin, losing 21-29 before recovering to stun the Crusaders in a high scoring affair in Auckland with a 35-24 success.

A trip to South Africa proved to be less than fruitful, with the Bulls and Lions defeating the tourists, but the Blues got their campaign quickly back on track with consecutive victories at home – a 40-30 win over the Cheetahs and a 30-12 success over the Highlanders.

However that annoying symmetry again came into effect, with the Brumbies and Hurricanes defeating the Blues on their respective home tracks, before the side returned to Eden Park and recorded their finest result of the season.

Beating the Waratahs 21-13 was a proud result considering New South Wales later success, which was followed up an impressive 44-14 shutout of the 2011 champions, the Reds.

Hints of a late season charge evaporated as the Chiefs and Sharks recorded victories in Hamilton and North Harbour, but again the Blues showed they could compete with the best, accounting for the Hurricanes 37-24 before heading to Perth against a surging Force and running riot in a 40-14 win.

The competitiveness of the New Zealand Conference was shown at the close of the Auckland based franchise’s regular season as the Crusaders (21-13) and Chiefs (11-8) won at AMI Stadium and Eden Park respectively.

2015 draw/key matches: The Blues open their campaign with a juicy blockbuster against the Chiefs, before the side hits the road for their South African tour.

Matches in Cape Town and Bloemfontein are followed by a clash against the Lions in Albany, before the side head to Palmerston North for the second derby match of the season against the Hurricanes.

The Blues take their first bye in round six, and then pack their bags again, playing the Waratahs and Chiefs in what is something of an extreme start to their season.

In round nine the Blues play their first match at Eden Park, hosting the Brumbies, but then head down south for back-to-back local derby fixtures against the Highlanders and Crusaders.

The Blues return home to host the Force, before popping back over the Tasman to play the Rebels in Melbourne, before returning to Eden Park in round 14 to host the Bulls.

The Hurricanes arrive in Auckland the following weekend before the three-time tournament winners take their second bye.

An exciting finish for the Blues will see them at Eden Park for the final two rounds of the regular campaign, hosting the Crusaders and Highlanders.

Personnel changes: There have been some big losses, with the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu, Tom McCartney, Chris Noakes and Tom Donnelly moving on.

But credit much go to the recruitment team, the players coming in look strong on paper, Jimmy Cowan, Ben Lam, Josh Bekhuis, Dan Bowden and Greg Pleasants-Tate adding their own brands of competitiveness to the Blues squad.

Key strengths: Sir John Kirwan likes to mould his teams in his own image, enthusiastic and willing to chance, and when the Blues execute this to the letter, their offence can rip sides apart.

The likes of Charles Piutau, Tevita Li, Lam, Frank Halai, Pita Ahki, Simon Hickey and Ihaia West provide more talent out wide than most teams could hope to wield, and if the platform is laid up front by a pack featuring the likes of Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu, the side could push for their first final’s berth since 2011.

Must be wary of: The inability to string together long stretches of success throughout the season – never winning more than two games in a row – was a liability on the Blues campaign in 2014, while final’s competitors put together long runs.

Defensively the Blues skills in putting together the big hits remained intact, but they were not ranked among the top outfits when it came to tackling percentages, and if Kirwan and his coaching team can tighten this aspect up the side’s competitiveness will likely skyrocket.