Blues return to glory is 'simple': Williams
February 20, 2013
Blues captain Ali Williams is fired up and determined to ensure his side are not the easy beats in 2013. © Getty Images
The Auckland-based Blues last Super Rugby success might be a distant memory, buried beneath a decade of underwhelming results, but captain Ali Williams will never forget the year a special group of young men from Eden Park rose to the top of world rugby's toughest competition.
A 21-year-old Williams, in just his second season, won the franchise's third title alongside baby-faced prop Tony Woodcock, then 22, debutant Daniel Braid, one-Test All Black Keven Mealamu and a little-know 19-year-old named Joe.
Setting out to replenish a trophy cabinet barren since 2003, 31-year-old Williams, now a 101-game veteran, finds himself gearing up for another campaign with an uncanny sense of familiarity.
"There were a lot of young guys as well, a lot of older guys that did their thing," Williams said of the 2003 season. "My understanding of it was that we actually kept it quite simple, and the simplicity was what kept the mind upstairs clear. Physically all we had to bring was that emotion and that passion to put on the blue jersey."
The 77-Test All Black's days of clowning around at the back of the team bus are over and he takes his job as leader and motivator of his team, which boasts an average age of just 23, very seriously.
Bright-eyed talents such as Jamison Gibson-Park possess enormous potential but, as Williams warned, will need to simplify the step up to the 'boiling pot' of Super Rugby if it is to be fulfilled. Fortunately for them, the man who provided that clarity during the glory days has returned to Eden Park.
World Cup winning mentor Sir Graham Henry was involved in all three of the Blues' titles, twice as head coach, in 1996 and 1997, but more interestingly as a technical advisor to Peter Sloane in 2003 - the position he now holds under fellow knight John Kirwan.
"They see his simplicity when it comes to rugby and his passion for it and the respect he's got amongst these guys is huge," Williams said.
It was a similar scene when Henry returned from coaching Wales for his second stint at Eden Park. There was, in fact, only one player above the age of 30 in that squad, which was only a year older than today's group in average age.
Indeed experienced campaigners Carlos Spencer, who had a stand-out season, Kees Meeuws, Troy Flavell and Xavier Rush provided direction and composure on the field but that year will surely be remembered as one where a number of new stars were born.
Kirwan recognises some of his youngsters can be a 'little bit shy' and plans to nurture their growth by implementing schemes to utilise their natural abilities.
"Really it's about creating an environment and a game plan where we can express ourselves and keep that enjoyment and excitement here," Kirwan said.
Blues greats Joe Stanley, Buck Shelford, Gus Collins, Eric Rush, Michael Jones and Craig Innes have also been called in as reminders of what the franchise was, and can become once again.
A 'new chapter' of the Blues story will be written when they travel to Westpac Stadium to face old foe the Hurricanes, who have won the past two contests, on Saturday night. But while Auckland's next generation of heroes are not quite there yet, Williams is backing his troops to make their own mark when the chance arrives.
"I trust these guys completely and I think as a team that we're getting that trust and it's growing," Williams said. "They are showing some passion; they're showing desire. The 2003 season will always be remembered but it's time for these guys to make their own history. Put us out in the boiling pot and we'll see what happens."
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