Let's get this straight: it wasn't all Pat Lam's fault. It was always going to be hard to see Lam retaining his job as head coach of the Blues after the season they'd had. But let's not forget it was a season in which he lost Jerome Kaino, the standout All Black in 2011, and Isaiah Toeava, the masterful backline organiser in Lam's successful Auckland provincial sides.
Lam also had to try and manage Piri Weepu, who turned up grossly out of condition, and Ali Williams, who should have found somewhere to play some soft rugby in his twilight years. If he couldn't start Weepu, he generally had to pick Lachie Munro, a doughty plodder, for his goalkicking. Injuries mounted, the team forgot how to win -- and Lam didn't seem to know how to get that belief back into them.
But Lam's biggest problem was the management above him. Not only did Andy Dalton and his lieutenants, as I pointed out in two frustrated posts here and here, seem berefet of the competence and vision to run games at the best-equipped rugby ground in the country, they failed to afford Lam the kind of coaching resources a team playing under the Blues banner should have.
Ironically, it came right at the end. The Blues had their hapless moments against the Brumbies, but they won. Charles Piutau, away for most of the season playing Sevens, looks like a sensational talent. Sherwin Stowers brought some actual pace to the wing, and young players like Liaki Moli and Steven Luatua looked like they'd arrived at Super 15 level -- albeit belatedly.
There is more for new coach John Kirwan to work with than had seemed possible midway through the season. But can Kirwan bring back fans like me? I bought a season package and just wrote it off eventually -- not only because the team was mediocre, but because the whole experience of going to the ground was mediocre.
Blues chair Gary Whetton should be directing his managers to prioritise coaching resources, but also to create events that Aucklanders want to go to. That means not just the basics -- and really, please tell me there will be a scoreboard, a clock and a competent ground announcer in 2013 -- but the more visionary task of creating an atmosphere that feels like Auckland.
The team is stacked with Pacific Island players -- but is there any Pacific colour at the ground? Like hell there is. Eden Park this year has worn boat shoes; as complacent and dull as some whitebread North Shore suburb. The experience of going there needs a cultural reinvention of the order of what the Warriors did with Mike Mizrahi running the entertainment at Ericsson. It will still have to work hard for atmosphere -- how good would a sweet little 25,000-capacity ground feel? -- but they could give the impression they're trying. And if Dalton and company can't do that, they should damn well go.
Kirwan doesn't have the ideal coaching pedigree -- running Italy and Japan isn't of the order of coaching a top-tier international side, or even one of the top Super Rugby teams -- but he's what was available, and he has courage and an iconic value.
He may also know a bit about trying circumstances. Check out his successor as coach of Japan Eddie Jones' interview after his side got thumped by the French Barbarians. He lets rip from about 2'40":
Ouch. Let's hope his predecessor is as passionate in his new job.