Desperate to crack the play-offs' Blues
There remain many more questions than answers when evaluating the chances of the Blues in Super Rugby 2018.
Progress has been slow and steady under coach Tana Umaga, entering his third season at the helm. But the key determinant on whether that progress is trending sharply upwards will come if they can haul themselves off the bottom of the New Zealand conference log and reach those elusive playoffs for the first time since Pat Lam's 2011 charges.
It can be done. But there are several caveats.
The first is that they stay largely injury-free, always a challenge in this attritional competition. Their depth is untested and shallow.
Isaac Salmon anyone? (He was Tasman's No.4 prop, if you're asking). Matt Johnson? (He was a midfielder for the stuttering Southland Stags in 2017). Flank Blake Gibson, Auckland's player of the season, is out until April after shoulder surgery.
That leaves a lot on the broad shoulders of Jerome Kaino in his final campaign for the franchise, and lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who needs to start 2018 the way he finished 2017. Ofa Tu'ungafasi is the man to show us he can fill Charlie Faumuina's considerable boots. Former All Blacks prop Ben Afeaki is the new scrum coach and he will be tasked with wringing every bit of power and technique out of Tu'ungafasi, a long-term All Blacks project.
The full-strength backline has an imposing look about it, starting with newly minted captain Augustine Pulu, who knows he needs a big few months to regain his All Blacks jersey. Some may not have heard of Stephen Perofeta. We can assure you the No 10 is the real deal, and just needs to show us consistent game management to augment his classy touches. Bryn Gatland will kick the goals as back-up.
We await the full flowering of Sonny Bill Williams' attacking game. We know the 32-year-old can tackle and offload, but we saw little of the other subtle touches for the 2017 Blues. He did, however, start to bring those on the All Blacks' northern tour. George Moala, probably at centre, will seek a strong campaign before he heads offshore.
In the outside backs, try this for a mix of pace and X-factor: Rieko Ioane, Matt Duffie, Melani Nanai, Michael Collins and young Caleb Clarke.
So, can Umaga unlock the full potential of this unit? So many questions, so few answers. But they are more than capable if the stars align.
One to watch
Caleb Clarke is a real chip off the ol' block, son of former All Black Eroni Clarke, who played the last of his 51 games for the Blues in 2000.
Clarke junior is not yet 19 but was in sizzling form on the New Zealand Under-20 wing last season. He won three caps for Auckland and looked at home in the Mitre 10 Cup but failed to kick on, partially due to injury. If he can crack the Blues' starting XV, and receive decent service from the midfield, he could again show us his wares.
New Zealand Conference Placing: Fourth
Player of the Year: Augustine Pulu
Rookie of the Year: Caleb Clarke
Best Signing: Leni Apisai
Breakout Player: Akira Ioane
Super Rugby Placing: Mid-table
In: Leni Apisai (Hurricanes) Isaac Salmon (Tasman), Mike Tamoaieta (North Harbour), Dalton Papali'i (Auckland), Glenn Preston (North Harbour), Jonathan Ruru (Otago), Otere Black (Hurricanes)/Dan Kirkpatrick (Wellington), Bryn Gatland (North Harbour), Matt Johnson (Southland), Tamati Tua (Northland), Caleb Clarke (Auckland)
Out: Hame Faiva (Treviso, Italy), Charlie Faumuina (Toulouse, France), Steven Luatua (Bristol, England), Brandon Nansen (Stade Francais, France), Sam Prattley, Billy Guyton, Matt Vaega, Declan O'Donnell, Rene Ranger (La Rochelle, France), Ihaia West (Hurricanes), Piers Francis (Northampton, England)
Squad: Leni Apisai, Matt Moulds, James Parsons, Alex Hodgman, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Isaac Salmon, Mike Tamoaieta, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Josh Goodhue, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou, Blake Gibson, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Dalton Papali'i, Glenn Preston, Kara Pryor, Murphy Taramai, Sam Nock, Augustine Pulu (captain), Jonathan Ruru, Otere Black/Daniel Kirkpatrick, Bryn Gatland, Stephen Perofeta, Thomas Faiane, Sonny Bill Williams, Matt Johnson, George Moala, Tamati Tua, Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, Melani Nanai, Matt Duffie, Michael Collins, Jordan Trainor
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
* Don't miss the Australian conference next week.