The euphoria of World Cup glory at Eden Park just four months ago is still in the air, but tonight marks a new beginning as the Blues and Crusaders kick-start Investec Super Rugby 2012.
Since the curtain closed on that famous tournament and the Web Ellis Trophy was at last safely secured on home soil, there has been a real buzz around rugby and the New Zealand public has been eagerly awaiting their next rugby thrill.
Well they need wait no longer as they are in for a cracker tonight, with a number of World Cup winning All Blacks going head to head in one of the biggest matches of the year.
A clean sweep of victories against the Hurricanes, Rebels and Highlanders in pre-season fixtures have given the Blues plenty of confidence and belief in their structures and systems, but head coach Pat Lam said it would count for little if they didn’t bring that to the table against the Crusaders tonight.
“We’re happy with what we’ve done during the pre-season,” Lam said.
“While the pre-season results weren’t the main goal – it was all about the processes leading into this game, we’re comfortable we’ve ticked the boxes and now we have to go out and put it on the field. At the end of the day no-one’s going to remember the pre-season and it all starts with the points you get now.”
Heading into his fourth year at the reigns, how does Pat Lam assess the squad he has assembled to mount an assault on the Super Rugby trophy in 2012?
“It’s definitely the most experienced team,” Lam said.
“I think the talent has always been there but for us it’s the experience and the leadership of the group that continues to grow. There are only four guys I hadn’t coached before in this group and that’s key. You build relationships, not just with myself but with other players and there’s a really good understanding between everyone.”
There is a sense of deja vu for tonight’s match as it was exactly the same way the Blues kicked off their campaign last year at Eden Park, with Keven Mealamu scoring a late try as the home side prevailed 24-22.
Lam said while tonight’s clash was just one of 16 games this season, it would give his side plenty of momentum if they were able to repeat those efforts and kick-start their season with a victory over the Crusaders.
“You don’t lose the competition in the first week but it’s about momentum. Whether we catch them or not, it all comes down to it on the day but we are confident in what we are doing and the most important thing is that we go out as a team.”
The Crusaders may be missing stars Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but Lam rubbished any suggestions it would make them easier targets.
“They always come in late… but you look at the quality they still have there. We always find it’s not about the individuals, it’s about the Crusaders. That’s what you play – their legacy. That’s why it’s always a great challenge for us.”
Lam has named a strong team for tonight’s fixture with pragmatism prevailing over reputation as he rewarded players for their hard work during the pre-season.
Michael Hobbs has edged out Piri Weepu and Gareth Anscombe to start at first five-eighths, while Jerome Kaino shifts from loose forward to bolster the back of the pack at number eight. Tom McCartney will get a rare start at loosehead prop, Rudi Wulf makes a welcome return after a stint in France and wing David Raikuna will earn his first cap for the Blues.