With 25 of their most experienced players returning, the Blues are hoping to pick up from where they left off in the 2017 Investec Super Rugby Championship.
The returning players announced in the squad today have an average of 29 Super Rugby caps each for the Blues. Additionally the Blues have attracted some experienced players returning to the region to help bolster their playing roster for 2017 and beyond.
Head coach Tana Umaga said the aims are simple.
“We want to start where we left off from last year – and there was some pleasing form late in the 2016 season. And we want to improve game by game throughout the competition,” Umaga said.
“We won’t be getting ahead of ourselves. Under the current competition format, your form in your own conference is the deciding factor. We were last in the New Zealand Conference this year and so we know there’s a mountain to climb.
“We relish that challenge and we will be looking for the same hard-working team approach, practice-by-practice, game-by-game, week-by-week.”
The Blues will look to their pack for leadership with five current All Blacks comprising Charlie Faumuina, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino and Steven Luatua; Maori All Blacks Akira Ioane and Kara Pryor, and James Parsons, who played for the national team this year but due to injury was not considered for the Northern Tour.
In the backs George Moala and teenage star Rieko Ioane are included in the All Blacks Northern Tour, with Billy Guyton and Ihaia West in the Maori All Blacks.
The Blues have attracted some key players who have taken the opportunity to return to the region led by Sonny Bill Williams, Augustine Pulu and Pauliasi Manu – who have all won All Black selection – and experienced Counties Manukau lock/loose forward Jimmy Tupou.
There’s excitement with developing players from last year looking to take their games further, led by rookie of the year Piers Francis, fullback Melani Nanai who trained with the All Blacks this year, league convert Matt Duffie, club person of the year Sam Prattley, young talent Blake Gibson who was injured for much of last year; prop Sione Mafileo, lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and centre Matt Vaega have been excellent for the successful North Harbour side; Northland captain Matt Moulds and NZU20 star Sam Nock.
The experienced Rene Ranger and former NZ Schools and NZU20 midfielder TJ Faiane return after long term injuries; NZ Under 20 fullback Jordan Trainor graduates to the full squad while there’s exciting new players in former Sevens star Declan O’Donnell and first five/fullback Stephen Perofeta both from Taranaki, and Otago utility Michael Collins.
Upfront the newbies include some former New Zealand Under-20 players in prop Hame Faiva, Northland lock Josh Goodhue, the returning Scott Scrafton and former New Zealand Sevens player Murphy Taramai.
“We think we have a good mix. First and foremost they are players who want to play for the Blues and are proud every day to put on the jersey and build on the rich legacy in this club.
“They know it is going to be hard, extraordinarily hard, but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Coach Umaga welcomes back defensive coach Alastair Rogers and mental skills coach Kylie Wilson who will be joined by new forwards coach Steve Jackson, successful this year with North Harbour and highly respected skills coach Dave Ellis back from Ireland.
The team is:
The Blues squad is:
Backs: Michael Collins (Otago), Matt Duffie (North Harbour), TJ Faiane (Auckland), Billy Guyton (Tasman), Rieko Ioane (Auckland), Matt Vaega (North Harbour), George Moala (Auckland), Melani Nanai (Auckland), Sam Nock (Northland), Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki), Augustine Pulu (Counties Manukau), Rene Ranger (North Harbour), Jordon Trainor (Waikato), Ihaia West (Hawkes Bay), Sonny Bill Williams (Counties Manukau), Piers Francis (Counties Manukau).
Forwards: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (North Harbour), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland), Blake Gibson (Auckland), Josh Goodhue (Northland), Alex Hodgman (Canterbury), Akira Ioane (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Steven Luatua (Auckland), Sione Mafileo (North Harbour), Pauliasi Manu (Counties Manukau), Matt Moulds (Northland), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), James Parsons (North Harbour), Sam Prattley (Auckland), Kara Pryor (Northland), Scott Scrafton (Auckland), Murphy Taramai (North Harbour), Patrick Tuipulotu (Auckland), Jimmy Tupou (Counties Manukau), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Auckland),
Coaches: Tana Umaga (head coach and attack coach), Alastair Rogers (defence coach), Steve Jackson (forwards coach), Dave Ellis (skills coach), Kylie Wilson (mental skills coach). Manager: Richard Fry.