The Super Rugby season usually creeps on in to the viewing guide amongst a fair amount of summer activity. It's usually met with a bit of a groan from me, a 'know your role' type of groan as rugby thinks it can slide on in to my enjoyment of the beach, the barbie and some backyard cricket. This time around it's very much the same, except that I'm looking forward to being an Auckland Blues fan. Strange huh?
The Auckland Blues have had an interesting past few years, interesting enough to alienate. A variety of decisions based upon what could be argued as purely commercial reasons and a rather greedy desire to bring in big names who on paper look destined to make the Blues a powerhouse. But that method is so 1998 and they now play in a Super Rugby competition where building a championship team or squad is more about getting the right players not just the best players.
There was never really much thought put in to rebuilding the franchise, it was more about band aid's that never really stopped much bleeding. Auckland has the most young talent in the country, by nature ... well maybe, because the copious amounts of talented South Aucklanders have recently decided to represent Counties Manukau and in turn the Waikato Chiefs. Whether fans simply wouldn't co-sign a rebuilding or whether management were too dumb to even consider the idea, the Auckland Blues made their own bed.
I consider 2015 to be the righting of the ship, the throwing out of that bed and bringing in a single mattress to start at the bottom and build. It's not in the Blues nature to start at the bottom and build from the ground up though, so they've made a compromise and it's a compromise that I'm willing to accept.
There's enough young players who have ITM Cup and Super Rugby experience to be able to form a foundation. In Simon Hickey, you have the perfect first five to organise those around him and perform his core jobs well. He offers direction, which hasn't always been evident with the ol' Blues. Hickey is the leader of the youngster's pack which includes impressive lads like Ihaia West, Steven Luatua, Joe Edwards, Tevita Li, Frank Halai, Charles Piutau, Lolagi Visinia, Francis Saili, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
In the past the Blues have missed the mark in putting the right players around their youngsters, instead opting for names who might (they didn't) draw in crowds and make the Blues an overnight success. The senior core group of Kevin Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina and Luke Braid are all solid players who play tough, rugged hard working rugby first and foremost. Bringing in a guy like Jimmy Cowan adds to this as he's someone who will just give the number 9 jersey a tough edge, with plenty of experience. If there's a ruck or maul that needs an extra body, Jimmy will be in there. If Hickey needs a pass in the bread basket to fire a kick down field, Jimmy will serve it on a platter every single time. The Blues don't need Cowan to do anything extra, they just need him to offer the basics at a international-key signing level.
Super Rugby is competitive, it wasn't always this way in the past decade. Not only is the New Zealand conference stacked, but the Aussies are starting to figure things out and will once again offer a huge challenge. I'm not sure that the Blues will suddenly become contenders, although it's very possible it just doesn't seem like the right time. But, at least the Blues represent me and many other Aucklanders how most people would want to be represented as the Blues have managed to combine a flashy, free flowing attacking natural instinct with control, toughness and grit. Well on paper at least.
It's not that I'm sick of being the laughing stock of Super Rugby, it's more that I'm sick of my rugby team being one big gimmick. A big gimmick while there's young players coming through doesn't breed the right culture. 2015 looks like it could be a bit of a different story.