Super Rugby
Leadership key if young Blues are to succeed in Super Rugby
Craig Dowd
February 24, 2016
Super Rugby New Zealand: Blues might go OK but tough as ever to predict

Super Rugby seems to have crept up on us this year, whether it's because of the long break since the end of the Rugby World Cup or the brilliant summer we have had in New Zealand. I'm not sure but it is going to take a little to get used to.

I thought Super Rugby last year was getting a bit laboured. There was a lot of travelling and there are a lot of games that you don't watch because of the time zone difference.

People want to watch rugby in the right time zone but catering for South Africa, and now Argentina and Japan, doesn't spin my wheels. And I know there's a lot of people with the same attitude. But it is what it is. However, more of that later.

Being a former Blues player there can be no confusion where my loyalties lie. But it has been a long time for me and all other Blues fans.

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Every year we expect so much out of the Blues but you have got to say that some of that 'young' talent they have had is getting a little bit older, a little bit wiser and a little bit more street smart. Steven Luatua will be back from injury and I'm sure he is champing at the bit.

Patrick Tuipulotu missed most of last season and he will be hungry. Charlie Faumuina is getting better and he has every reason to play well this year to claim a really big spot.

Then with the Ioanes (Akira and Rieko) and Joe Edwards; there is just masses of talent throughout the whole squad and then you throw someone like Rene Ranger into the mix. He's gone away, come back and will be more worldly-wise and is just a devastating player. He'll be a little bit more mature, too.

© Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

I think his midfield pairing with George Moala - though Ranger is among the replacements this week - is mouth-watering. That could be the catalyst for the Blues this year, especially when you've got a mentor like Tana Umaga who knows those positions very, very well. I'm keen to see how he ushers those players through.

There's no shortage of X factor, but what is really going to be needed this year from the Blues is strong leadership.

Tana is a person who was a strong leader himself and he'll put pressure on the likes of Jerome Kaino who is maturing every year.

He's obviously got the respect of all the players in the team so he needs all his deputies around him, especially with Keven Mealamu moving on and there'll be other players that need to step up. But that's a good thing. That's just the nature of life and the nature of rugby - one goes out and another comes in on the conveyor belt that is New Zealand rugby.

You hear it time and time again, a lot of players just need an opportunity. You do get a bit of a logjam of players because you can only put 15 players on the field at any one time, but there'll be players this year who get opportunities and who really put their hand up.

© Michael Bradley/Getty Images

The Blues can't do much worse than last year. They really need to start strong. Whatever team starts well builds confidence. We saw it with the Hurricanes last year when people weren't expecting much from them. Next thing we know they went off to South Africa and came away with a few wins under their belt and all of sudden they grew in confidence. That's what created their season.

It was much like that with the Highlanders as well. If you get a strong start it pays dividends and it carries through the season.

The team that takes out this year's competition will be the team that, from the get-go, really steps up.

This year is different from years gone by in the sense that there are some notable names missing, especially from the All Blacks, so there is a lot for everyone to play for. It just seems like a fresh era.

The days of McCaw, Carter, Smith, Nonu, Mealamu and Woodcock have ended, leaving one-third of the starting positions in the All Blacks up for grabs. There are vacant places that haven't been vacant for a long, long time.

As we know every year in the Super Rugby competition there are going to be players we've never heard of who will step up to a whole new level, like Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder did last year. It's like a cracked record but these players came through the Super Rugby season and stepped up.

© Michael Bradley

If you look at the ones who were close last year like Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie as well - it is open slather as to who wants that position. Even Malakai Fekitoa who has been there at centre but who is ready to claim a starting position, has the challenge in front of him.

It will be interesting to see how Argentina go. They've got a strong international core but they have got a lot of travelling to do. I can see the long-term picture of trying to help Argentina rugby but it could be to the detriment of what we are trying to do for ourselves.

The expansion to 18 teams doesn't excite me. Japan, I think, is going to be a complete waste of time. I think they'll be that side that everyone puts their second team against and I can't see them coming away with any wins at all.

As for the longer term view on the draw and how it will affect the outcome of this year's competition, I have to admit I have been enjoying the summer and haven't been too concerned about the onset of Super Rugby. It will probably be two or three weeks into it before I, and many others, really settle into it.

But I'm sure the players know they have got to win, and keep winning, if they are to be there at the end and the shape of the draw doesn't really come into it. They just want to keep the points table ticking over and it doesn't really matter who they are playing against.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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