You know the saying – “never mind the quality, feel the width!”. Before the kickoff to this season I was often applying it in conversations involving the unimaginative expansion of the Super-12 to the Super-14 by tacking on a couple of teams from the existing SANZAR countries.
But I was surprised to find that by early January I was looking forward to the start of the footy. True, it may have been in large part due to the laughable form and attitude of our useless cricket team, the Black Caps, but it wasn’t the whole story.
It’s part of a general feeling in our game in this country at the moment, which is the most optimistic it’s been since 1996-7.
At the very back of it, there is the tremendous high, which still hasn’t gone away, of winning the rights to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. If you add to this the momentum that Henry, Smith and Hansen have given the All Blacks, then you begin to see where it’s all coming from.
So the Super-14 is, depsite itself, looking pretty good from these shores, and has started with a fizz and a bang.
Looking back to the early years of Super-12, do you all remember the ditzy, fitness-challenged starts to the competition each year? Not any more. It’s taken a while, but the players now only lack match-fitness, and a bit of team cohesion, and apart from those understandable deficiencies hit their first games at a high standard.
But some things don’t change much. Casting an eye over the New Zealand hopes the Crusaders once again stand head and shoulders above the rest. The Canes are still ‘the entertainers’ with a weak tight-five, and the Chiefs still lack enough Indians who can ride bareback and shoot from the hip. The Blues seem to have lost their way completely and turned into a weird amalgam of harum-scarum ‘Hurricanes style’ rugby, and a more structured game, whereas The Highlanders are still staunch, with a strong tight-five and a backline which has its moments, but doesn’t generally dazzle.
I guess you’d rate them in the following order: Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs, with the Blues a puzzling piece of the jigsaw which might fit anywhere in a position below the Crusaders.
Looking at the Aussie and SA teams, the Brumbies are still wringing the last dregs out of the original McQueen legacy, but are still always a threat despite being on a slow descent. The Reds are enthusiastic, but look like they will (as usual) fizzle quickly. The Waratahs are the Australian flag-bearers, strong all-round the paddock, whilst nobody will have to reckon with the Force, who are just learning the ropes and will struggle all season.
Over in The Replublic the Bulls look like being the team to look out for, carrying on from last season’s resurgence. They also seem to have got the balance of players for their new team the Cheetahs, who have started well. The Sharks will bite a few teams before the end, and should also be respected.
All-in-all despite the extra length of an already long competition, the season is looking like an enticing prospect. I think that the fans have also learned, like the players, to pace themselves a bit.
Oh, and I might even change the Haka ‘Super 12′ labels at some point – remind me in a few years, if I forget!
Tip for 2006 Super-14 winners: The Crusaders!