Last week the focus was on the backs where there's plenty of talent and no rudder, which is obviously a worry as the Auckland Blues certainly need some experienced guidance. Looking at the group of forwards who have been named by coach Tana Umaga in the Blues' squad for the upcoming doesn't fill me with much hope that the engine room will off-set the backs' show pony nature.
Here's the crew...
Hookers: James Parsons (North Harbour), Matt Moulds (Northland), Quentin MacDonald (Tasman)
Props: Nic Mayhew (North Harbour), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland), Ofa Tu'ungafasi (Auckland), Sione Mafileo (North Harbour), Namatahi Waa (Northland).
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Gerrard Tuioti-Mariner (North Harbour), Hoani Matenga (Wellington), Josh Bekhuis (Southland), Scott Scrafton (Auckland).
Loose forwards: Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Kara Pryor (Northland), Jack Ram (Northland), Steven Luatua (Auckland), Akira Ioane (Auckland), Joe Edwards (Auckland)
You'd be mad if you looked at that list of loose forwards and didn't get a nervous sweat on, anticipating all sorts of physical domination, bump-offs and one handed offloads. You'd be mad or you're just not from Auckland, which is all good, we forgive you.
Jerome Kaino is in my mind the most important player in the entire Blues squad as he's the man who will hold this team together, it's just that he's alone in this regard. Well, Kaino is kinda alone as he does have his clone in Joe Edwards right there with him, Edwards has consistently impressed and his physical play combined with a level of maturity many young players lack make him the perfect lad to take over from Kaino at some stage.
Anyone who watched the ITM Cup knows what a dangerous loose forward combination Edwards and Akira Ioane are, there's no shortage of talent here. Jack Ram is coming off an impressive international campaign in which he played three games for Tonga in the World Cup while Steven Luatua is facing a Super Rugby campaign that could have a great influence on his career, positively and negatively.
This got me thinking about how to best use what is a deep group of loosies. The only locked in selection is Kaino, with Luatua, Ioane, Edwards and Ram competing for the other two spots. Luatua could slide into lock and that's what I'd want to see with Luatua partnering Patrick Tuipulotu as the starters with Josh Bekhuis offering cover.
In my mind Luatua has to play lock to open up the possibility of a Kaino/Edwards/Ioane combination or Kaino/Ram/Ioane (Edwards and Kaino can play No.6 and No.8). This obviously depends on Coach Umaga's preference as Ram will give the Blues a powerful ball-running and defensive presence, his ability as a ball-winner at the breakdown however is his x-factor.
Without Ram, the Blues will be relying on their physical play to upset their opponents' ball and would look to play the role of the bully. Options are always nice and it's going to be interesting to see how Umaga juggles this on a weekly basis.
Personally, I wanna see as much of Akira Ioane as possible so hopefully he gets plenty of game time at No.8.
The front-row is somewhere where the Blues could struggle to compete with the other boss-dawg teams in Super Rugby. Charlie Faumuina is the only notable name with he and hooker James Parsons likely to feature in the best front-row that the Blues roll out. I'd go with Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Sam Prattley as competing for the other starting prop spot while I wouldn't sleep on the emergence of Sione Mafileo or Nic Mayhew either.
With a backline full of weapons and not much experience, it will be up to the front-row to ensure that their scrum is able to hold its own. I can see improvement and growth in this area as the season goes on, it's unrealistic however to expect them to dominate their opponents.
Maybe a backline isn't really needed though...
Scott Scrafton and Gerrard Tuioti-Mariner offer cover as locks and they are my low key picks to keep an eye on. I doubt either of them will feature as starters early in the season with Luatua capable of stepping in and Bekhuis being the solid option, however they will be called on at some stage and will do the trick.
There's an eerie similarity between the group of backs and forwards named in this squad as I can see this forward pack blowing an opposing team off the park one week and then coming back down to earth the next. Subtlety isn't used often in rugby, however while the loose forwards for example have plenty of bravado, a lack of subtlety has me picturing the Blues chasing their opponents around for much of this Super Rugby campaign.