Can Lam's Blues finally play to their potential?
Back in the early days of Super Rugby, the Blues were the dominant team. Under Graham Henry they made the first three finals and won two of them.
The Blues of the past few years haven't been anything special. Apart from one semi-final appearance against the Reds last year, the Blues under Pat Lam have always found some way to avoid the playoffs.
Now, I respect Lam as a coach. He certainly has the credentials, coaching Auckland to two championships in his four years at the helm. However, during his tenure with the Blues, despite having a wealth of talent at his disposal, his team has been very inconsistent and despite always being in the hunt for a playoff berth, have only made the playoffs once. They have had a knack of scoring a lot of points but not winning as many games, often being high on the table due to bonus points.
Not all of it has been Lam's fault, however. His team has been hit by some injury-riddled years such as 2009 to 2010, with All Blacks such as Ali Williams, Joe Rokocoko and Tony Woodcock missing considerable amounts of game time because of injury.
They have also lacked a consistent first five-eighth to lead their talented backline, having to rely on the likes of Tasesa Lavea, Jimmy Gopperth and Stephen Brett. But in every level of the team from the front row to the back three, this team was still stacked with talent.
Last year was the best year under Lam so far, losing to the eventual champions in their fortress over there in Brisbane, so there's reason to believe that maybe with some more talent, this team can win the big one.
Well they have more talent now.
Following last year's season, the Blues have acquired the services of IRB International Player of the year candidates Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu to go with their own player of the year candidate Jerome Kaino. Other past All Blacks Rudi Wulf and Brad Mika return to the squad as well. These moves have given the Blues one of the most talented squads in the Super 15, rivalled in New Zealand only by the Crusaders.
Weepu, in particular, is the most intriguing addition because many see him as the solution to the Blues' pivot problems. His preference has always been at halfback, but he has shown the ability to cover five-eighths before, playing alongside current teammate Alby Mathewson in the Hurricanes. He is often considered to be a possible backup to Dan Carter. He made his debut at 10 for the Blues last week against the Melbourne Rebels in pre-season.
But even though he had a great 2011, Weepu's problem in the past has always been his fitness and his consistency. If he doesn't work out at 10, behind him is the promising 20-year-old Gareth Anscombe.
Anscombe has done an admirable job leading the Auckland backline with great kicking and outstanding pace. He can play wing and fullback as well. Perhaps in the future he'll be competing with Beauden Barrett or Aaron Cruden for that black 10 jersey.
The backline they'll be in charge of includes a wealth of talent, with Lam being able to field a backline of past and present All Blacks. In the centres, Ma'a Nonu provides the Blues with a powerful battering ram to bash opposing lines, and Benson Stanley provides defensive ability and crisp passing.
On the outside there is a mix of young talent. Established players Rudi Wulf and Rene Ranger combine with young up-and-comers Sherwin Stowers, George Moala and David Rakuna. With Isaia Toeava leading from the back, the Blues could be deadly on the counter-attack and will have some effective finishers on the wing.
The forward pack is full of veterans like Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino and Daniel Braid. They are accompanied by young standouts like Charlie Faumuina, Anthony Boric and Luke Braid. Barring injuries, this pack should be a force in set pieces and at the breakdown.
A super talented roster like this should definitely improve from last year. If they don't, then Lam may have to move on.
The recent success of the Warriors is taking interest away from the Blues in Auckland. The Blues need to show some more consistency and Lam needs these superstars to run like a well-oiled machine instead of the sputtering lemon that falls short of the finish line.
The Blues have steadily improved over the years, but are still stuck behind the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference. It's about time they re-establish themselves as an elite team in the Super 15. The talent is there, the rest is Lam's job.