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After more than 30 years with The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media in Australia, Greg Growden now writes exclusively online for ESPNscrum. Never afraid to step on toes, you can expect plenty of compelling insight from one of Australia's most renowned rugby writers.

Super Rugby Preview
Blues' year revolves around Benji Marshall - Growden
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
February 14, 2014
The Blues have a number of star players without perhaps the strength they need in key positions ©

Blues' Super Rugby 2014 Squad

  • Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu, James Parsons, Charlie Faumuina, Sam Prattley, Angus Ta'avao, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Tony Woodcock, Tom Donnelly, Liaki Moli, Culum Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Kane Barrett, Luke Braid, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Brendon O'Connor, Peter Saili, Jamison Gibson-Park, Bryn Hall, Piri Weepu, Baden Kerr, Chris Noakes, Pita Ahki, Ma'a Nonu, Francis Saili, Jackson Willison, Frank Halai, Benji Marshall, George Moala, Charles Piutau, Lolagi Visinia, Joe Edwards, Simon Hickey, Tevita Li, Tom Murday, Albert Nikoro.
  • Blues' Super Rugby 2014 fixtures

Boasting 11 past or present All Blacks, the Blues welcome league convert Benji Marshall into the fold as well as returning heroes Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, from the Highlanders, and Jerome Kaino, from Japan. Greg Growden says they have a squad to make a move up the ladder but their season will be determined by the success of the man in the No.10 jumper and the level of Benji Marshall's impact following a poor 2013 season in the National Rugby League.

Last Season: 10th overall, third in New Zealand Conference; a better season compared with 2012, but the Blues floundered after two opening victories in which they looked world beaters. They struggled to score points (347), and this combined with their disappointing defensive record saw them sitting only five places from the bottom at season's end. The Blues won only six matches throughout the season, the side unable to hold onto leads and close out matches.

Jeff Wilson said of the Blues in 2013: "The Blues approached 2013 with a new coaching regime, a change in attitude, and looking to the future. They left the gate fast with enthusiasm, talent and with a fresh new attitude. Promising an expansive and exciting game, their talent came to the fore and they tested the best that Super Rugby had to offer. They faced a difficult schedule, and their inexperienced line-up was unable to maintain the challenge under pressure at the highest level. Read more ...

Russell Barwick and Greg Growden look at the New Zealand Super Rugby conference

Key Man: Tony Woodcock played 113 Super Rugby matches for the Blues, scoring eight tries, before moving to the Highlanders for 2013; Woodcock has returned to Auckland, taking with him his wealth of Super Rugby and Test experience to bolster a pack that often lost its way in 2013. It's also worth noting that Frank Halai bagged a competition-leading 10 tries in 2013 - one-quarter of his side's total of "meat".

Key Stat: The Blues collected more bonus points than any other team in 2013, ranking equal second for scoring four tries (6) and tallying a competition-high for losing by seven points or fewer (6) - including four losing bonus points secured away from home; those numbers suggest they weren't far from challenging more seriously for a play-offs berth.

Rising Star: Benji Marshall moved from rugby league to rugby union hoping to enjoy the success of Israel Folau at New South Wales Waratahs. A huge NRL star, he was expected to play on a wing or at full-back but Sir John Kirwan has been talking of his ability to move into the playmaking positions. A rugby union debutant at this level, he can be expected to improve as the season progresses.

Super Rugby 2014: Team-by-team

© SANZAR (Image Supplied)

Season Preview: The three-time champions will hope to improve upon last year's results with Kaino, Woodcock and a Nonu bringing experience to the side, and Charles Piutau and Marshall adding exuberance to the backline. The Blues should be a side to watch in the 2014 season, but the increased expectations will deliver extra pressure on head coach Sir John Kirwan, who is yet to convince fully at this level.

Greg Growden's verdict: The Blues will be one of the most watched Super Rugby teams this year, due to the Benji Marshall factor; he is the highest-profile league-to-union convert since Sonny Bill Williams, and all and sundry will want to see whether he can make the transition. And with Sir John Kirwan talking up Marshall as a fly-half having said initially that he would play at fullback, there's also a potential element of "train wreck" for the naysayers. The Blues have under-performed consistently when they have had impressive squads, but this could be the season when they make a considerable move up the ladder - especially with Ma'a Nonu, Tom Donnelly, Jerome Kaino and Tony Woodcock joining the province. Still, their season will be determined by the success of the man in the No.10 jumper, and whether Marshall makes an impact following a poor 2013 NRL season with Wests Tigers.

Tip: Third in New Zealand Conference. Finish: Seventh.

The top ESPNfootytips Super Rugby tipster at the end of the home and away season wins $A2000, with the runner-up claiming $A1000. We also have a pair of Gold Class movie tickets for each weekly winner.

Best of all you and a mate could be heading off to Game II of the Bledisloe Cup series between the Wallabies and the All Blacks in Auckland. The prize includes flight, accommodation, transfers and match tickets. Simply enter your tips WEEKLY to make another entry in the competition.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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