Blues coach Pat Lam believes he has the "most exciting and experienced" squad ever assembled, after revealing the 32 players that will compete in the 2012 Super Rugby season.
Led by talismanic captain Keven Mealamu, the 30-man Blues squad boasts a wealth of experience with only four players new to the franchise.
The much heralded signings of All Black stars Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu bolster a backline oozing with X-factor and class, while Lam has also looked to bring in the next generation of talent, naming New Zealand Sevens flyer David Raikuna and Auckland youngster George Moala in the squad.
After a season in the Blues' wide training group, promising flyhalf Gareth Anscombe and props Pauliasi Manu and Angus Ta'avao have also graduated to the full squad.
The 2009 Blues Player of the Year Rudi Wulf has returned from a season with Toulon in France to further boost the backline stocks, while 23-year-old playmaker Michael Hobbs has overcome serious back surgery to rejoin the Blues after debuting for the Auckland-based franchise two years ago.
Despite being sidelined all of last season due to horrific injuries, No.8 Brad Mika and lock Liaki Moli have been retained in the squad and will be relishing the opportunity for game time in 2012.
Lam said he was excited about the continuity of the squad as well as the introduction of some new faces to the team.
"This is definitely the strongest squad I've named in my time with the Blues," Lam said.
"If you look at the group we've named, there are only four players out of the 30 that are new to the franchise - Piri Weepu, Ma'a Nonu, David Raikuna and George Moala.
"That's exciting when you look at Piri and Ma'a who were superb during the World Cup and were nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award, and also Moala and Raikuna - two young wings who will learn from a lot from the experienced guys.
"They have a lot of natural talent. David's ability to beat a man is exceptional and he's a typical Fijian flyer, while Moala is all Tongan power and strength so they complement Rudi Wulf, Sherwin Stowers and Rene Ranger.
"Ranger is keen to get some game time at centre like he did a couple of years ago and that frees up the possibility for these younger guys to get in, do some training and really push hard for a wings spot."
After nurturing a young and inexperienced side in 2009 and developing those players into an experienced group, Lam said it was important to start bringing in the next generation of talent to a team featuring eight players from the World Cup winning All Blacks side.
"We're pretty excited with the balance we have in the squad. [Assistant coach] Bryce [Woodward] and I were really conscious that while we have all this experience with Ma'a and Piri joining the likes of Kevvie, Ali Williams, Isaia Toeava, Rudi Wulf, Anthony Boric, Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock and others, it's important that we bring the young guys through like Gareth Anscombe, George Moala and the others that can learn from them.
"The successful Auckland and Blues teams of the past have always had a strong leadership group and experienced players teaching the next generation coming through and in the Blues region we have a lot of talent. For the young props like Pauliasi and Angus, giving them an opportunity to learn from Tony Woodcock is crucial to their development."
Lam was also thrilled to see Keven Mealamu head into his twelfth year with the Blues.
"There's no hiding the admiration I have for Keven Mealamu and we were so stoked he re-committed to the Blues for two years before the World Cup," he said.
"He's played a major part in developing the ‘Blues way' and I knew he would play a major role in the All Blacks side that won the World Cup. He's the most experienced Blues player ever and he's got a couple of years in him left. He's so passionate about the Blues and he's the ultimate role model for the rest of the team."
While Nonu and Weepu's move north from the Hurricanes may have grabbed all the headlines in the lead up to the 2012 Blues Squad announcement, Lam said the return of wing Rudi Wulf was one of his most pleasing signings.
"I have to say it certainly made my day when Rudi asked to come back to the Blues. He had a lot of pressure to go to the other franchises because everyone knows how good he is but we're thrilled he's chosen to stay with us.
"Rudi exemplifies the ultimate professional player - he's pretty much the Kevvie of the backs in way he trains, his commitment and he's a great team man. He's someone that is certainly going to help us a lot next year."
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