“It’s going to be a real rollercoaster. Fasten your seatbelts, here we go.”
That was the bold statement by new head coach Sir John Kirwan as he unveiled the youngest ever Blues squad at a breakfast event for members at Eden Park yesterday.
The 32-man squad is radically different from the one that struggled during the 2012 campaign. There are 16 new faces and only 11 players who played for the franchise last season.
Kirwan admitted it had been a tumultuous two months since he stepped into the role of Blues head coach, dealing with the exhaustive contracting process and the key departures of All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu.
So did he ever have second thoughts about what the heck he’d let himself in for?
“Every second day. I tried to resign 3-4 times,” he quipped to rapturous laughter from the 750-strong crowd.
“It’s been an incredible five to six weeks for me. I walked into contracting and it’s been a strategy in itself with ups and downs. Early in the piece we decided we were going to go very young with lots of potential and lots of upsides.”
Indeed while there are still veterans in Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams, Piri Weepu and Anthony Boric, the team features an abundance of youth and enthusiasm, with the average age of the squad just 23-years-old.
“We looked at the current squad, looked at what we needed to do and went to the market and decided to go young with heaps of upside potential. The side you see today is very different, very young, but with heaps of potential. It will be exciting. We have some old heads, which is important. It’s going to be fun.”
Age is but a number to Kirwan who was only 18 when he debuted for Auckland.
“The theory is, if you think they have a big upside so potential top Super Rugby players and All Blacks, then it doesn’t matter about their age,” he said.
“Once you talk to them you get a pretty quick feel about where they are from a maturity point of view. That’s what we targeted – young, heaps of potential and guys who will look you in the eye and understand their goals and where they want to go.”
After joining the squad as replacements last season when injuries bit deep into the Blues’ playing stocks, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili, Steven Luatua and James Parsons have all been rewarded with full contracts for 2013.
New players from outside the Blues region are Quentin MacDonald, Culum Retallick, Ronald Raaymakers, Kane Barrett, Brendon O’Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Chris Noakes, Baden Kerr, Jackson Willison, Waisake Naholo, Frank Halai, and Martin McKenzie.
So how long will it take to mould this group of individuals from a wide range of provinces into one strong, united team?
“One pretty hard football training session where they all feel really sick together because it’s so hard,” Kirwan said.
“I think they are starting to understand the importance of this city and region so that will be good for them. The balance between excitement and some of the older heads who will have to run a bit faster and the young guys will have to set the standards early.”
“The inexperience of the side will cost us sometimes but it will also bring excitement. It’s a project. How quickly we can get them playing how we want will be a wait-and-see.”
While Kirwan is optimistic about what his young football team is capable of, he is also realistic and has the key goal of showing fans how much the team cares about playing for this region.
“We need to play for the fans… If you can see it and feel it, we will be OK. If you can lose a football game but know you have given everything right down to the last drop you will feel it and see that. You can’t fake that.
“That’s what I have said to these guys. You can’t fake the fans and you can’t fake the media. You get out there and you die for it, everyone will understand. We will win some, we will lose some.”
The Blues officially kick-off their pre-season training on December 10.