Peter Sloane, Bruce Robertson, Graham Henry
Player of the Year
Joe Rox bursts on to the scene
The Blues’ management knew they had a star in the making when All Black winger Doug Howlett was moved to fullback to make room for Joe Rokocoko. While the Fijian-born youngster had yet to celebrate his 20th birthday when he was selected for the Super 12, his deeds for New Zealand in the Schools, Under-19 and Under-21 grades, as well as Sevens, suggested Rokocoko was a special player in the making. It took just one campaign and 13 games for Rokocoko to confirm the promise. Rokocoko went on to score six tries that season including a try 11 minutes into his debut against the Waratahs with just his first touch of the ball.
1996-1997 championship winning coach Graham Henry was added to the coaching staff as a technical advisor in 2003, having performed the same role for the successful Auckland side in the previous year’s NPC. He had returned from the United Kingdom in 2002, standing down from the Welsh position after a humiliating 54-10 defeat by Ireland in the Six Nations. Henry’s key responsibility for the Blues was on defence. On his watch, the team improved significantly, conceding 19 tries during the preliminary phase compared with 27 the year before.
The foundations of a successful team
A key factor in the success of the Blues in 2003 was the mix of an exciting, young and dynamic backline with a world class forward pack.
A backline featuring the likes of Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, Rico Gear, Mils Muliaina and Carlos Spencer, was combined with the bruising number 8 Xavier Rush and rising stars Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu. Such was the side’s depth that in the second spell the Blues could use from the reserves bench three All Blacks – Brad Mika, Tony Woodcock and Derren Witcombe.
Off to a flyer
The Blues started well, winning their first five matches – the best start to a campaign since the inaugural Super 12. After kicking off in Sydney with a 31-26 defeat of the Waratahs on the back of two tries from Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the Fijian flyer did it again the following week, claiming another double as the Blues overcame the Chiefs 37-30.
The real acid test came in week three in the form of defending champions the Crusaders who had stretched their unbeaten sequence to 15 matches. But that record came to a stuttering end as the Blues routed them 39-5 in a famous match at North Harbour Stadium.
Blues stride into finals
With such a powerful all-round side, the Blues lost just once in the round-robin, comfortably beat the Brumbies in the semi-final and prevailed in a tense final, 21-17 against an international-quality Crusaders side. Two tries to the Crusaders gave the visitors a 10-6 lead at half time, but the Blues took charge after the break scoring tries through Doug Howlett and Daniel Braid to lead 21-10 with just 10 minutes remaining. The Crusaders rallied and were narrowly denied twice by the desperate Blues defence before Caleb Ralph finally forced his way over. Although converted, the try came too late and the Blues held on to hand the Crusaders their first defeat in 10 semi-final or final appearances.
- Played: 11
- Win: 10
- Loss: 1
- PF: 393
- PA: 185
- Diff: +208
- BP 9
- Points: 49
- Place: 1st