I've prepared myself for the upcoming Auckland Blues' Super Rugby season by taking a look at the forwards and backs named in Tana Umaga's squad. You could call this getting familiar with the Blues again after being disenfranchised for a number of years, I won't whinge about the past though as here we are, waiting, anticipating, wetting my pants with excitement about the Auckland Blues in 2016.
Okay, there isn't much excitement.
When I was looking at the group of forwards and backs who will make up the Blues this season, I was left with an over-arching though of 'plenty of talent, not much grit and not much leadership'. In terms of expectations, this doesn't leave much room for hope in Aotearoa's Super Rugby conference, especially when the Waikato Chiefs, Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders are three of the best teams in the whole competition.
Even a more ruthlessly fanatical Auckland Blues fan - more ruthlessly fanatical than me - would have to admit that getting a win over the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders, let alone finishing ahead of them, will be a tough ask. My one-eyed Jaffa-ness however does have me offering a cheeky thought, even if I don't quite expect it; Canterbury are ripe for the picking.
The Crusaders are simply the lowest-hanging fruit that the Blues can reach and with changes a plenty going on down in Christchurch, I reckon the Blues can certainly sneak a win or two past the Crusaders.
What I will judge the Blues' on this season is how they perform against the South African and Australian teams. I expect the Blues to be able to beat the Sunwolves, but they won't play each other so meh while I'm not so eager to predict dominance over Argentina's Jaguares. We all know about Argentina's love from scrums and set-piece footy/strong forward play is what ensures that Argentina's national team always put their best foot forward, put this against a willing but inexperienced Blues pack and things could get interesting. This game is set to be played in Round 6, at Albany (home of the worst turf in Aotearoa) which works in the Blues favour as they would have got a few games behind them, combinations will be sussed and the Jaguares will be traveling from either Argentina or South Africa - they face the Stormers a week prior and the venue is 'TBA'.
I don't expect anything against any Australian team, it's just going to be a good measuring stick to see how the Blues are looking. All of Australia's teams will be better after Australia's World Cup campaign and I've got the Aussies riding that wave for as long as they can which will provide the Blues with stern challenges scattered amongst games against kiwi heavy-weights.
All this will depend on the team that Umaga settles on and the copious amounts of pure talent that the Blues have could work in their favour with Umaga able to ensure that guys get the right rest and so on. Here's what I'd consider the Blues' strongest 15 and a few options...
Fullback: Matt Duffie/Lolagi Visinia
Wings: Rieko Ioane + Ben Lam/Tevita Li/Melani Nanai
Midfield: Rene Ranger + George Moala/Ioane/TJ Faiane
First-Five: Ihaia West/Matt McGahan
Halfback: Bryn Hall/Sam Nock
Loose-Forwards: Jerome Kaino + Steven Luatua + Tanerau Latimer/Akira Ioane/Joe Edwards/Jack Ram
Locks: Patrick Tuipulotu + Josh Bekhuis/Scott Scrafton/Gerard Tuioti-Mariner
Props: Charlie Faumuina + anyone else from Ofa Tu'ungafasi/Sam Prattley/Nic Mayhew/Sione Mafileo
Hooker: James Parsons/Quentin MacDonald
Expectations aren't high, let's get that clear. However, I expect every Blues game to be fun, such is the talent in this squad and there will certainly be moments where Rene Ranger breaks the line, offloads to Akira Ioane who bumps off a few battlers, holds the pill in one hand and throws a slick pass to Charlie Faumuina to score. Those moments will happen and they will offer plenty of hope, just don't expect those moments to translate directly into success.
Oh and for the record, I've selected the Jaguares as my second team behind the Blues. This means that as I follow the Blues through this journey of rugby enlightenment, I'll also be keeping one eye on the Jaguares and how they fare in their first Super Rugby season.