Super Rugby
Blues needed change in attitude to reconnect with lost fans: Umaga
Sam Bruce
February 22, 2016
Super Rugby New Zealand: Blues might go OK but tough as ever to predict

The Blues again find themselves up against it in a fiercely competitive New Zealand conference but three straight trial victories suggest new coach Tana Umaga is already making progress in Auckland.

Umaga has enjoyed a pleasant start in what is arguably New Zealand's toughest provincial coaching post, one only amplified by the fact the Blues have failed to make the playoffs in each of the past four seasons.

Ending a title drought that extends a further nine years further back to 2003 is the obvious long-term aim; but for Umaga and his wider coaching team, there a far more immediate concerns.

"Together with our High Performance Manager, we did a huge amount of work off the field to put structures in place to be a competitive rugby team week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out," Umaga told ESPN.

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"A big part of this has been in the recruitment and development process - and on changing attitudes.

"We want players who aspire to be part of the Blues, who are proud to be here and who will work hard every day to do everything they can for this jersey."

Umaga assumed the coaching role at the end of last season after Sir John Kirwan resigned amid a tumultuous end to his three-year reign.

Infighting at board level, off-field player misdemeanours and, above all, a 3-13 season made Kirwan's position virtually untenable before Umaga was given the challenge of arresting the slide of Super Rugby's original heavyweights.

Stints with French giants Toulon, including the controversial first capture of dual international Sonny Bill Williams from the NRL, and Counties Manukau in New Zealand's National Provincial Championship would seemingly have Umaga well prepared for the Blues role.

But there has still been a period of adjustment for the veteran of 74 Test caps.

© Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

"The role itself is much the same as my previous coaching positions but the scope of a Super Rugby head coach is much greater," he told ESPN.

"I have a squad of over 40 players, five assistant coaches, specialist help and support staff in medical and strength and conditioning. So it has taken time to adjust to [the] size of the operation and those demands, but that in itself excites me.

"The Blues have an excellent squad with a number of experienced players who have returned but also a big number of new and young players; most of the players are from our region.

"We put a lot of work into recruiting and developing our own young players which will take some time and is an exciting challenge."

While New Zealand rugby has been flush with world-class No.10s, the Blues have been without a dominant playmaker since the departure of Carlos Spencer.

The lack of a Test quality fly-half has largely been blamed for the Blues' failings in recent times but Umaga is satisfied with his options for 2016, each of whom have had the chance to impress during the pre-season.

"I am not sure there have been specific issues at No 10," Umaga said. "Often the role of a 9 and 10 are dictated to a solid platform up front and go-forward ball.

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"And in Ihaia West we have one of the best provincial 10s; we have Piers Francis who has played professionally in Scotland and the likes of Matt McGahan."

The Blues warmed up for their Super Rugby opener against defending champions the Highlanders on Friday with pre-season triumphs over the Rebels (59-7), Hurricanes (40-12) and Chiefs (24-12).

The season proper certainly represents a step up in intensity, but it also gives Umaga's side the chance to impress their fans at home at Eden Park - one of the franchise's key season aims.

"Our objectives are to be competitive in the Super Rugby competition," he said.

"That means we need to work really hard every single training session, every day. And then translate that into performance on the field.

"Hopefully that will excite our fans to return. We are doing more to connect with our communities as well with our free pre-season game, in our mid-season break, inviting coaches to our trainings and with promoting secondary schools rugby as our curtain raisers."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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