2017 Team Preview: The Blues

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LAST YEAR: COMPETITION: 11TH PLACE

NZ CONFERENCE: FIFTH PLACE.

There was obvious improvement from the year before. The Blues won eight games compared to three in 2015, proving to be highly competitive in the New Zealand Conference. Their end of season form was particularly strong, with a magnificent performance in their loss to eventual champions the Hurricanes — a sign of their potential.

LUCK OF THE DRAW:
Not ideal for the Blues as they have eight games before their first bye. Three of their first four are away from home to the Rebels, Chiefs and Crusaders. A highlight will be the Blues taking on the Reds in Samoa on Friday, June 2.

CAMPAIGN PREVIEW:
All Blacks legend Tana Umaga would have learned plenty last year about what is needed to get the Blues back to finals contention. The Blues have an excellent squad with a healthy number of All Blacks and experienced campaigners. But, crucially, they have also recruited well, which Umaga knows is fundamental to Super Rugby success. “We have more depth, which is crucial in this competition especially as we have eight straight games before our first bye. We also have attracted some experienced players who wanted to come back home to Auckland. “The likes of Jimmy Tupou, Augustine Pulu and Pauliasi Manu have already added much off-the-field.

Clearly once fit, Sonny Bill Williams is a world-class player for the Blues for the next three years. “Overall though the key is to develop our sense of team and unity, which will carry us through rather than the ability of any one player. We only want players here who want to be with the Blues, and who are very proud to be part of this rugby club, and likewise develop young players in our region who aspire to be with the Blues first and foremost.” Umaga is realistic about where the Blues will finish in 2017. “Our aspirations are no different from last year. We want to pick up where we left off in 2016.

We want to be competitive in each game and in the competition and we want to improve every week. Let’s not forget we were last in the New Zealand Conference in 2016 so we have a long way to go.” The Blues have rejigged their coaching set-up, which Umaga says will simplify things. “We have adopted a more simple structure to our coaching group this year with a back coach, forward coach and defence coach, plus a fulltime skills coach and our mental skills coach. “I never stopped coaching and I love coaching both on the field and leading our team of coaches and support staff. I don’t like to make things too complicated. Rugby remains a simple game.”

WHO’S NEW:
Forwards: Alex Hodgman, Pauliasi Manu, Epalahame Faiva, Josh Goodhue, Brandon Nansen, Murphy Taramai, Jimmy Tupou. Backs: Augustine Pulu, Michael Collins, Sonny Bill Williams, Declan O’Donnell, Stephen Perofeta.

WHO’S THROUGH:
Forwards: Nic Mayhew, Namatahi Waa, Quentin MacDonald, Josh Bekhuis, Hoani Matenga, Joe Edwards, Tanerau Latimer, Jack Ram.
Backs: Bryn Hall, Matt McGahan, Male Sa’u, Afa Fa’atau, Ben Lam, Tevita Li, Michael Little, Lolagi Visinia.

LIKELY FINISH:
Expectations are always high in the Blues catchment area, but fortune has been hiding with the team finishing 11th, 14th, 10th, 10th and 12th in the last five years. But they are realistic contenders for a play-offs spot this campaign.

BLUES SQUAD:
Forwards: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Epalahame Faiva, Charlie Faumuina, Blake Gibson, Josh Goodhue, Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Matt Moulds, Brandon Nansen, James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Kara Pryor, Scott Scrafton, Murphy Taramai, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou, Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Backs: Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, TJ Faiane, Billy Guyton, Rieko Ioane, Matt Vaega, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Sam Nock, Declan O’Donnell, Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu, Rene Ranger, Jordan Trainor, Ihaia West, Sonny Bill Williams, Piers Francis.

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