Well here we are again, still in our tee-shirts and jandals and slapping on the sun screen, as the 2009 rugby season is set to start with the Super 14. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that we watched the All Blacks complete the Grand Slam and counted down the days until Christmas, and certainly rugby seemed a long way off while I was holidaying up in Nelson this month. But now just hours away from the Highlanders and Brumbies kicking off the 2009 Super 14 in Dunedin, what are the chances for all the franchises going into this year’s competition?
NEW ZEALAND TEAMS
The Blues (finished 6th in 2008)
After several years struggling under coaches from outside of their franchise, the Blues go into this Super 14 under the coaching of Pat Lam who successfully took Auckland to domestic glory in 2007. Three times past winners of the competition (1996, 1997, 2003), the Blues have failed to deliver in recent years having only made the play-offs in 2007. Player losses for the Blues include Nick Evans, Isa Nacewa, Ben Atiga, Troy Flavell and Daniel Braid (who is now playing for the Reds), while newcomers include Jimmy Gopperth, Tasesa Lavea, Michael Hobbs, Paul Williams, Josh Blackie, and the return of Ali Williams after a one year stint with the Crusaders. Much will be expected of the Blues under Lam, but there are still question marks over exactly who will be their first choice 1st 5 and goal kicker, and whether they have the leadership and experience to get them all the way.
The Chiefs (finished 7th in 2008)
Perennial under-achievers given their talent pool and undoubtedly the unluckiest Super team when it comes to player injuries, the Chiefs will be hoping that 2009 finally sees a turnaround in their fortunes. Player losses include Jonno Gibbes, Simms Davison, Ben Castle, Tom Willis and Kristian Ormsbly, while incoming players include Hika Elliot, Colin Bourke, Serge Lilo, Toby Morland, James McGougan, Sona Taumalolo and James Wilson. Halfback Brendon Leonard is back from serious injury to push his chances for reclaiming national honours. While there is no doubting the class in their three quarters with the likes of All Blacks Mils Muliaini, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richard Kahui, there is a lack of experience in the pack and they will need to perform well to compete with the likes of the South Africans. Pressure will be on 1st 5 Stephen Donald to prove that he is the heir apparent to take over from the injured Dan Carter when the All Black season starts. It is imperative that the Chiefs change their past ways and get off to a good start this year.
The Hurricanes (finished 4th, lost semi-final to Crusaders in 2008)
Always the bridesmaid and never the bride seems the lot of the Canes. Stacked with talent yet with a tendancy to play Jekyll and Hyde rugby from week to week, they must surely have the longest suffering supporters in the Super 14. In the 13 years of Super rugby the Canes have made the final four on five occasions, and made the final once in 2006 where they lost to the Crusaders in the infamous Fog match. Player losses are few for the Canes with only Jerry Collins, Thomas Waldrom, Chris Masoe and Jimmy Gopperth missing from the 2008 squad. Incoming are Bryn Evans, Jason Kawau, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Karl Lowe, David Smith and Victor Vito. Depth of leadership has a few question marks, but there is no doubting the talent and license to thrill that the Canes will bring to the field. But can they show consistency in 2009?
The Crusaders (finished 1st and won final in 2008)
The team that has set the benchmark in Super rugby with nine finals apppearances to claim seven titles, along with a losing semifinals spot in 2007, the Crusaders have only failed to make the final four in three of the 13 years of Super rugby. But this season they are without talismatic coach Robbie Deans and 1st 5 Dan Carter, so the world awaits to see if the dynasty can continue under the coaching of past Crusaders’ captain, Todd Blackadder. Player losses include some big names with Dan Carter, Ali Williams, Reuben Thorne, Greg Somerville, Mose Tuiali’i, Scott Hamilton and Caleb Ralph all gone from the 2008 squad. Newcomers in 2009 are Ryan Crotty, Jared Payne, Colin Slade and Thomas Waldrom. In the Crusaders’ favour is the benchmark they have set in previous seasons, their ability to bring young players through, and having the likes of Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read, Corey Flynn and Leon MacDonald to guide those youngsters on and off the field. It would be a brave man indeed who wouldn’t back the Crusaders to make the final four again.
The Highlanders (finished 11th in 2008)
Though they only won three games in 2008 (one being the scalp of the Crusaders), the Highlanders were unlucky not to win more and there were usually only a few points separating them in games they lost. While their pack has always been respected, the Highlanders have been let down by a lack of strike power in their backline in past seasons. This year they have bolstered their ranks with new players including Matt Berquist, Israel Dagg, Jayden Haywood and Jason Shoemark. Player losses from 2008 are captain Craig Newby, Hoani MacDonald, Paul Williams and James Wilson. If the Highlanders can get some belief and their pack maintains its dominance from 2008, their new backline may just have the impetus required to lift them higher up the ladder.
The Reds (finished 12th in 2008)
Still in a rebuilding phase they are unlikely to be title contenders this year, but watch out for the odd upset against top sides as the Reds continue to develop their game. Of interest will be the impact of their NZ import, Daniel Braid, who headed off-shore after a frustrating season with the Blues last year and the realisation that he is no longer in contention for an All Black jersey. Not an easy start either for the Reds, starting the competition in South Africa at altitude against the Bulls, then heading to Capetown to play the Stormers before flying back to Brisbane to take on the Cheetahs.
The Waratahs (finished 2nd in 2008)
A new coach following the bizarre early-season firing of Euan McKenzie in 2008 (who went on to take the side to the final) and who knows what the Waratahs will dish up this year. But with plenty of Wallaby players and a core of experienced players they will be there or thereabouts given their talent pool and finishing spot last year. Seven home games means not too much travel, and although the bye comes late (week 11) it is before they head to South Africa to take on the Cheetahs, Sharks and Lions.
The Brumbies (finished 9th in 2008)
Hit hard by injuries last year, the Brumbies boast a backline stacked with Wallabies and with the likes of Stephen Hoiles and George Smith in their loose forwards, Mark Chisholm at lock and Stephen Moore at hooker they will mount a formidable challenge and are likely to lead the Australian teams this year. New coaching staff, including some past Brumbies players, should ensure that the Brumbies are stiff competition for all they come up against. Their record at home is also one of the best, and this year they will play many of the top contenders such as the Crusaders, Waratahs, Stormers and Blues on their home turf.
The Western Force (finished 8th in 2008)
The Force have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons in the lead up to the S14, with coach John Mitchell embroiled in all sorts of rows with his players and management. Should they be able to rise above the off-field dramas, the Force have a handy side spear-headed by Matt Giteau in the No 10 jersey. They play good honest rugby, and are always a handful to take on whether at home or away. Seven home games eases the travelling burden this year, and they get the bye midway through the competition. The acid test will come
if they have a few losses on the way, and whether the coach and players can band together to get through it.
SOUTH AFRICAN SIDES
The Bulls (finished 10th in 2008)
Their supporters are happy that Victor Matfield is back to play S14 this year after a spell playing rugby in Europe in the 2008 competition, however it remains to be seen if the Bulls can break away from their traditional 10-man style of rugby and embrace the ELVs. If they continue to play such a stolid game they will remain in the lower half of the table, which was a long fall from the heady days of being the first South African side to win a Super title when they beat the Sharks in the 2007 final under coach Heyneke Meyer. Since Meyer departed after that final the Bulls form slid dramatically, so they will be looking to emulate their 2007 form. With the likes of Matfield, Pierre Spies, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez and Danie Roussow, they will always be a handful at home. But like most of the South African sides, they struggle on the long away trips, and this year they have a five week trip abroad. Will this make or break them?
The Sharks (finished 3rd in 2008, lost semi-final to the Waratahs)
The favoured South African side to make the final four, the Sharks have a good history in Super rugby having played in three finals and making the semis on two other occasions. With John Smit, Ruan Pienaar, Francois Steyn and numerous other Springboks, the Sharks under coach John Plumtree look to be a formidable outfit in 2008. With seven home games, the only major obstacle they may come up against is injuries given their bye doesn’t come until week 11. No doubt they will be pleased that they will play the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Durban.
The Stomers (finished 5th in 2008)
They missed making the final four last year on points differential with the Hurricanes, and under well respected coach Rassie Erasmus the Stormers play a fast, bruising game that makes them hard to quell. With names such as Percy Montgomery, Luke Watson, AJ Venter, Schalk Burger, Ricky Januarie, Peter Grant, Jean de Villiers and Conrad Jantjes they present a side that has a big, powerful pack and a fast, incisive backline. Expected to make another strong challenge this year, and will not be a team any side will take lightly. Against them is having to play seven away games, includnig a five week trip taking in the Crusaders, Waratahs, Brumbies, Hurricanes and Highlanders – not a trip for the faint hearted.
The Cheetahs (finished 13th in 2008)
They really should have finished bottom of the table given they only won a solitary game last season, but six games were losses of less than 8 points and in three games they managed to score four tries. But can the Cheetahs pick themselves up and have self belief this year? Juan Smith will have his work cut out as captain of this side. A final placing in the single digits would be a good improvement from last year.
The Lions (finished 14th and last in 2008)
Despite winning two games and drawing one, they still finished last behind the Cheetahs. An inability to score tries was the main problem for the Lions, as they were the only side not to manage a four try win during the 2008 Super 14. The return of Andre Pretorius following a long injury break will be welcomed, and one to watch is the American flanker Todd Clever, who will make his S14 debut this year. Expect the Lions to be fighting it out for last spot again though.