27 Feb

Luke McAlister to return to NZ
by Tracey Nelson
27 Feb 2009

In a deal finalised in the last 24 hours, former All Black Luke McAlister is leaving the UK to return to New Zealand and has re-signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union through until 2012.

McAlister, who has played at both 1st 5 and 2nd 5 for the All Blacks, left New Zealand at the end of the 2007 season to take up a contract with English club Sale. He will return to New Zealand at the end of the English Premiership season this May.

While he feels he has developed both on and off the field while playing rugby in England, his main reason for heading back to New Zealand is to be closer to his family. McAlister has a young daughter who lives in Auckland. He is currently recovering from knee surgery but hopes to end his time in English rugby on a high with his Sale team attempting to end in the top four of the Premiership.

The NZRU will be delighted to add McAlister to their list of signings that this week has included Brendon Leonard, Stephen Brett and Andy Ellis. However, the happiest of all will be the All Black coaches who no doubt will have been deeply concerned by the lack of depth and experience in the New Zealand 1st 5 ranks following Dan Carter’s ruptured archilles tendon that will keep him out of international rugby until at least the end of this year.

While McAlister has signed with the NZRU, he is yet to decide on his provincial or Rebel Sport Super 14 future and will discuss that on his return to New Zealand. It now remains to be seen whether the rules stating that to be eligible for All Black selection a player must participate in the Super 14 will be waived to fast track McAlister back into an All Black side desperate for an experienced, international 1st 5.

Brief stats:
McAlister made his All Blacks debut in 2005 in the third Test against the touring British & Irish Lions and went on to play 22 Tests, scoring 120 points, before heading to Europe at the end of 2007.

27 Feb

Preview – Round 3: Rugby Confusion
by WAJ
27 Feb 2009

Well I’m stuffed if I can work out what is happening. Some of the worst rugby imaginable was served up last weekend, especially on Friday night. Atrocious kicking, no game plan, poor execution – you name it and the likes of the Waratahs, Chiefs, Force, Hurricanes etc etc all delivered it.

Referee’s now seem to blow the whistle quicker than ever. All in all very disappointing and you would hope for better fare this weekend or people are going to start turning off and not turning up. It is fair to say that crowds are down so far – some very poor attendance at the cookietin so far this year. Bet they pack the place out for the T/20 there though. Rugby get your shit together!!

Saw an interesting interview with Peter Marshall last week. He said that the best ref’s get the highest ranked games. Nice to know and explains the Force v Cheetahs whistlathon with Leckie having his whistle glued to his bottom lip.

1st 5/8 rankings: Slade, Hobbs, Bowden, Donald, Kirkie. I refuse to rank Gopperth. But they really are a mediocre bunch.

Another big weekend up with sides still sorting themselves out – some crucial must win games for teams touted as contenders preseason.

Crusaders v Hurricanes
This is a tough one. The Hurricanes have made a heap of changes, dropped the incumbent AB tighthead prop, replaced 2 loose forwards and the midfield and installed Weepu a 1 5/8. Cooper is clearly not happy and has acted accordingly, but it also smacks a bit of desperation. Still Lowe is a likely looking lad and the loose trio offers plenty of pace, but the lack of bulk in this area is a worry against the likes of Macaw and Read. The Hurricane forwards have to give their backline decent ball so the backs have the maximum opportunity to break the line against a very good defence. Very simply the Crusaders need to win more ball – they did well with the little they had last week but in the end the lack of possession told. McCaw and Thorn will make a huge difference of course. But I fancy the Hurricanes here, they will win it with their backs.
Hurricanes 1 – 12

Waratahs v Highlanders
Oh to have the depth to be able to leave Tahu and Polota-Nau out of your starters the Highlanders are thinking – bloody hell they’d be our best 2 players. Still the one thing the Highlanders have plenty of is heart and if they could apply that to their defence for 80 minutes they might just pull this one off. But you just know it will be a 79 minute effort, so don’t get excited when they are 6 points up with 3 minutes to go, just don’t. The Waratahs have an enviable home record and haven’t lost in Sydney since 2007, and only once to the Highlanders at home. With a good forward pack based around a very solid scrum, they need to get moving in the backs where they never consistently free up enough room for weapons like Tuqiri and Horne to run. But they are point accumulators and will be too strong in the end here.
Waratahs 13+

Chiefs v Sharks
Couldn’t have the Chiefs in a million years. They are just not playing good rugby. Woeful scrum, average lineout, OK in the loose I guess, and wasteful and uncreative in the backs, well that was last week anyway, and I don’t think they can turn it around. Still no Mils or Kahui. The only spark has come from Leonard and a one man band is not enough against the Sharks. Strength in all aspects of the game, they have toured well recently with a 50/50 record in Aus/NZ over the last 2 years – as good as it gets from a yarpie team. I think they will be too strong with too many options in attack for the Chiefs.
Sharks 1 – 12

Brumbies v Force
Only in Aus, with all its politics, infighting and over the top inter-state rivalries could you have a backdrop that surrounds this game. The Force implosion over the Mitchell saga, drama all week over whether the Force will survive a player drain on the back of Giteau’s move, to where else, the Brumbies. So complete off field contrasts. The Brumbies have named an unchanged line up and only need Lealiifano to come right(nearly had him as my best NZ 1 5/8 so close to gifting the game to the Crusaders last week did he come) to win this. The Force are at 6′s and 7′s, their assistant coach said at half time that they had been instructed to kick less in the 2nd half, so what did Giteau do, kick of course. He seems to lack any combination with his backs at the moment and with Mitch making his usual raft of changes no chance for team work to build this week.
Brumbies 13+

Lions v Bulls
You have to like the Bulls after a very impressive display last week. Some good team tries interlaced with some individual brilliance from the likes of Spies they were awesome. The Lions are workmanlike but I couldn’t see them challenging this Bulls outfit even at home. The Bulls have won the last 3 times these 2 have played all by 13+. Same again please.
Bulls 13+

Stormers v Blues
Remarkably after getting walloped last week the Blues are still in 5th position, 4 places ahead of the Stormers – go figure. A strengthened Blues team will fancy their chances here, they have won 3 of 5 in Capetown and despite last weeks scoreline played some good rugby in easily the most attractive match of the round to watch. They lacked a lot of experience last week and it showed, but the likes of Kaino, Woody, the Masport Moa and Rokocoko bring much needed class and experience to this team. The Stormers were lucky to hang on in the end last week and this will provide much encouragement to the Blues. They will need to hold on in the first 20 minutes when the Stormers always start with a hiss and a roar and pressure the aging Percy and a win is on the cards here. Big question mark is whether the Lavea/Helleur combo can hold de Villiers. Ever the optimist.
Blues 1 – 12

Reds v Cheetahs
Mmmmm 14 v 13 – almost a who cares game already. But am looking forward to this as I fancy the Reds will turn it on at home. Not disgraced in either game in S.A. when below strength in the forwards, they have some real running ability in the backs, and they find the room to use this ability. Cooper and Barnes are 2 playmakers who can spark a raid from anywhere. McMenamin adds much needed grunt up front, which should allow Braid to roam and link where he is at his best. The Cheetahs – well fancy they will be there to make up the numbers, a few good individuals but not the strongest team going around – hard to like in any aspect.
Reds 1 – 12

Waj

23 Feb

Super 14 Summary – Round 2
by Tracey Nelson
23 Feb 2009

The second week of the Super 14 was nothing much to cheer about for the NZ teams – only one winning NZ side, and that came at the expense of the Highlanders when the Hurricanes came from behind to beat them in the opening game of Round 2 in Wellington on Friday night. The Chiefs lost a dismal affair against the Waratahs in Sydney, the Crusaders were downed in the final seconds by the Brumbies in Canberra, while the Blues were slam-dunked by the Bulls in Pretoria.

Hurricanes beat Highlanders (22-17)

Ma’a Nonu was benched for this game, with coach Collin Cooper stating that he knew how to manage Nonu and get the best from him. A master stroke in the end, because when Nonu was unleashed into the game at the start of the second half the Canes – who had been sputtering along at best against a Highlanders side taking most of the opportunities that came its way – he immediately had an impact and cut a swathe through the Highlanders defence to set up a try for winger David Smith.

The first half had been a grim battle, something more akin to Six Nations rugby as both sides fought in the wet conditions to get any points on the board. The halftime score of 3-0 to the Canes reflected the spectacle the first half had been. After Smith’s try early in the second half the Highlanders managed to get ahead on the scoreboard with two tries against the run of play, the first to Daniel Bowden which was somewhat fortuitous as replays of his grounding of the ball over the line following his kick through and chase were dubious at best. However, the TMO decided it was good enough and the try was allowed.

Steven Setephano scored the second try for the Highlanders after a Canes’ mix up, and suddenly the Highlanders were up 17-10. But as is now almost inevitable, the Highlanders managed to yet again lose a game in the dying minutes as the Canes launched attack after attack. Jason Eaton busted his way over to bring the Canes within two points, and in the final minute of the game a break-out attack from their own half combined with some panic on defence by the young Highlanders’ backline as they attempted to control a bobbling ball in the wet led to Conrad Smith scoring in the corner. The Hurricanes now have their first win but still look far from convincing, while the Highlanders will continue to rue the close losses that appear to be continuing to dog them from last season.

Waratahs beat Chiefs (11-7)

Anyone who managed to watch the entire second half of this game should be checking into a mental asylum about now. It was without doubt one of the most error-ridden 40 minutes of rugby anyone could wish to suffer through, and it was a relief to all when the referee finally blew the whistle for fulltime.

This was a game where two sides managed to display in spectacular fashion a complete lack of the fundamental skills required to play rugby at the top level. Despite conditions being dry, there were dropped balls aplenty, inability to catch and pass, and an alarming tendency by both sides to throw dreadful passes at players in worse positions.

The Chiefs’ pack was yet again shown up at set piece, with their scrum being hammered at times by the Tahs. Lack of support for the ball carrier also cost the Chiefs, although luckily their defence was holding strong and some rapid scrambling got them out of trouble on numerous occasions in the first half. Remarkably enough, the Chiefs went into halftime with a 7-5 lead thanks to Stephen Donald converting a Taumololo try whilst the Tah’s solitary try to Tahu was uncoverted.

In the second half the game went downhill rapidly, with error after error by both sides quickly nullifying any promising attacks. The handling errors alone in the second half were enough to have fans and commentators all groaning, and the only scoring came from a penalty and a very wobbly drop goal by Kurtley Beale. Neither team will enjoy watching footage of this match, and both will have plenty to work on heading into Round 3.

Brumbies beat Crusaders (18-16)

When one side has 68% of possession, 60% of territory, wins the ruck & maul tally 112-33 and spends over 7 minutes in their opposition’s 22, you would expect them to win handsomely. But it took the Brumbies 81 minutes to finally take the lead and win in this hard fought encounter in Canberra on Saturday night.

The Crusaders, playing without Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn and Leon MacDonald, entered the match as underdogs and if you were to believe the Australian commentators they were going to have a hard night at the office shutting down the Brumbies midfield, and especially Stirling Mortlock. But as the match wore on you could have been forgiven for wondering if Mortlock was even on the field, such was the strength and tenacity of the Crusaders’ defence.

One try apiece in the first half and two penalty goals to the Crusaders saw them go into the half time break 11-8 up. The Brumbies then got a penalty 15 minutes into the second half to level the scores, but the Crusaders struck back immediately with a good attacking burst for a try to Ross Filipo. Unfortunately Stephen Brett couldn’t manage to convert, so the Crusaders had a slim 5 point lead heading into the final 20 minutes of the game.

Then unfolded some remarkable defence as the Crusaders repelled wave after wave of attack on their line, forcing errors even from the likes of Mortlock. Another breakout attack saw the Crusaders make it into the Brumbies 22, but unprotected ball at the back of the ruck was turned over and the Crusaders’ chance to score was blown. The Brumbies again stormed the Crusaders’ line as the time clocked clicked over the 80 minute mark and finally the remarkable defence was stretched to breaking with fullback Mark Gerard crossing over the corner to draw the scores level. Mortlock then stepped up to attempt the conversion to win the game and, as is always the way with Australian sides, the ball sailed between the uprights.

Despite losing the game, the Crusaders can take more than just a bonus point from this game. With Corey Flynn and Andy Ellis both leaving the field injured, it was a very young, inexperienced side that continuted to push a full-strength Brumbies to the max and so very nearly had the win. Todd Blackadder and Darryl Gibson will not only be heartened by their young side’s defensive efforts, but also that despite not yet converting scoring chances into points those chances are being created.

Bulls beat Blues (59-26)

This was a record defeat for the Blues, their worst in 14 years of Super rugby. It was also a very harsh learning curve for many of the young Blues’ players who were playing for the very first time in South Africa, made even harder by being at altitude in Pretoria.

The Blues couldn’t have got off to a worse start, conceding 26 points and giving the Bulls a bonus point for four tries within 23 minutes. Rookie winger Rene Ranger then struck back for the Blues scoring a very good try down the sideline in the 26th minute. But the damage had already been done, and when Bulls 1st 5 Morne Steyn landed a 40m drop goal in the 29th minute you knew it was going to be a hard day at the office for the Blues. A try to Anthony Tuitavake saw the Blues go into halftime trailing the Bulls 32-14.

Like the Crusaders, the Blues were without many top players, but unfortunately they couldn’t emulate the Crusaders’ defence and were continually breached by a Bulls side that became more rampant as the game wore on. It’s hard work to stop a team like that when they’re on-song at home, so the reality was that the game was lost and the task was now to come away with a bonus point. Credit to the Blues that they did so, with tries to Onosai Auva’a ='#000000'> and Isaia Toeava giving them four tries and some consolation for such a big loss – the Bulls running in a total of seven tries to score their second consecutive maximum point win this season to move to the top of the Super 14 table.

In other games:

Western Force beat Cheetahs 16-10
Stormers beat Reds 27-24
Sharks beat Lions 25-10

20 Feb

Preview – Round 2
by WAJ
20 Feb 2009

Thank God Round 1 is out of the way. Some good rugby, but a lot of bad as well, as teams and players get to grips with S14 physicality and combinations look to gel.

Having said that there were twice as many tries scored in the opening round compared to last year, so we’ve got something right it seems. Maybe, just maybe having the top refs officiating went a little way towards that.

This weeks ranking of 1 5/8 – Slade, Bowden, The Duck, Kirkie, Lavea.

A huge Friday night awaits as we get back to back to back games, a crucial clash in Canberra on Saturday, and the two top teams on the S14 table battle it out in Pretoria on Sunday morning.

Hurricanes v Highlanders
Right – so how is team with one All Black in their 22 going to beat a team that has nine. If they show the flair and daring from last week and throw in some consistency the Highlanders may just show why a champion team will triumph over a team of champions. Get real right! Yes the Hurricanes will get their shit together this week I reckon. Thrush a big in for them with his go forward and in the wet this is exactly what will be required – also expect Tialata to play big, likes the Bicky Tin in the wet. Experience, home advantage, and a kick up the arse will get the ‘Canes home and reasonably comfortably.
Hurricanes 13+

Waratahs v Chiefs
Will the Chiefs ever take a trick on the injury front? How unlucky can they get – the last player they need to lose is Mils, looking in good nick too. Waratahs are a bit ominous I reckon. New coach, more attacking style, a solid forward pack with Waugh always niggling away, and some cracking backs who have a year or two under their belt – Horne could be anything. The Chiefs have won the last 3 games between these teams but home advantage, form and injuries point to a Waratahs win.
Waratahs 13+

Force v Cheetahs
Should be a comfortable Force win. They have strengthened their side from last weeks fade out and having got their 1st game loss out of the way, as is their norm, should be primed for this. Like the look of Pocock, he has taken another step up and will push Waugh out of the Wallabies this year. The Cheetahs continue to struggle, they lack fire power and can’t put sides away. The X factor in this game is of course the Mitchell issue. More speculation in the press this week about him moving on, or being moved on. 20 players out of contract this year and it could be a choice between retaining players or farewelling coach – see ya Mitch.
Force 13+

Stormers v Reds
What to make of the Reds? Still battling by the looks of things and really miss Horwill. Fancy them as a home team only this season and they will struggle here against a pretty good Stormers outfit.
Stormers 13+

Brumbies v Crusaders
Close to the game of the round. An unchanged Brumbies team who got the required slap across the chops last week to wake them up and them performed pretty well, even if it took a last minute drop goal. Improvement in a couple of areas, mainly 1 5/8, and an obvious need to tighten up their midfield defence will put them in good fettle. The Crusaders are hard to like here, only 6 or so players starting from last years champion team, and no superstars to perform a miracle – couldn’t pick them.
Brumbies 1 -12

Bulls v Blues
This is a toughie and probably the hardest to call. The Blues with a rebuilt team did bloody well last week to get a bonus point win despite all the efforts of Lavea to do otherwise. Hit by injury, and that bloody stork that keeps circling, they are still a few weeks away from full strength, but have shown surprising depth. Boric, Collins and Moa stepped up big time last week and the former two will need to go again this week. Like the back line shuffle, more pace at the back and a better kicking game for the high altitude. But why, why, why is Woody on the bench – finishing strong is one thing but if you are to far behind because your scrum has been dismantled……………The Bulls will produce the same type of performance they have every week – bash ‘em up front, kick long and use the flash whenever possible to get in behind. Going with the heart as usual
Blues 1 – 12

Sharks v Lions
The Sharks are going to be hard to beat this year, strength in all aspects and a developing combination at 9, 10 & 12 could be really interesting. The Lions could be a bit of a dark horse this year. They have some very good players, a good tight five, honest loosies and strike power out wide. If Pretorius can get consistent game time and thus form they could be a real danger team. Still have to go with the Sharks comfortably here.
Sharks 13+

19 Feb

ANZC 2009 draw unveiled
by Tracey Nelson
19 Feb 2009

The draw for the 2009 Air New Zealand Cup was released today, with highlights being a Round One defence of the Ranfurly Shield by Wellington, plenty of afternoon local derbys and games on August 22, September 12 and 19 brought forward so as not to clash with All Black test matches.

The competition itself kicks off on Thursday evening of July 30 and will procede over the next 15 weeks. It is a full round robin format with all teams playing each other.This year there are no quarter-finals, so the semis will occur immediately after the finish of the round robin format and play out at Labour Weekend (Oct 31/Nov 1) with the finals taking place on November 7th.

Wellington, who are the current holders of the Ranfurly Shield, will face a first up challenge from Otago. If they successfully defend the shield against them, they go on to face challenges from Canterbury (Round 4) and Auckland (Round 5). Should they survive those, there will be a repeat of last year’s thriller when Southland get a challenge in Round 9.

However, fans hoping to see the All Blacks in action during this year’s ANZC will be sorely disappointed. While last year’s competition, spanning 13 weeks, saw the top All Blacks enter into the action around the final three weeks of play, this year we are unlikely to see any of them pull on their provincial jumpers. The ANZC will now take 16 weeks to complete – three longer than last year – and with overlaps with TriNations tests in August and September, and the end of year tour commencing in early November, the window for the top players to rest will coincide fairly and squarely with the ANZC.

And it gets worse. Given that the All Black selectors will undoubtedly be looking at a touring squad numbering around 30 or more, there is every likelihood that key players for the top finishing provincial teams will be pulled from the ANZC when named in the All Black squad that will gather for training before they head for the UK. Quite how that will impact on teams’ fortunes heading into the semi-finals and final remains an unknown yet grim reality.

There will also be frustrations amongst the top provinces who boast the bulk of the All Blacks. These players place a heavy financial load on the unions’ books, and it’s a fair argument that if you are paying for a player you should at least be getting his services on the field. This is yet another problem for the NZRU to juggle, as will be any futher loss of fans coming to watch the games. Partially filled stadiums and fans voting with their feet because they perceive they are watching an inferior product will impact the NZRU severely in the current financial times we are facing.

18 Feb

Who will fill Dan's boots?
by Tracey Nelson
18 Feb 2009

With Dan Carter suffering an archilles tendon tear while playing for Perpignan on his sabbatical, the All Blacks will be looking for a new 1st 5 for at least the first half of the international season – the Iveco Series against France and Italy in June, and the TriNations starting mid July. The 2009 Super 14 will take on a new edge as the various 1st 5s battle it out to see who can show the form and composure the All Black coaches will be looking for. So who are the candidates to fill the very large boots left by Carter’s absence?

THE BLUES (Tasesa Lavea, Jimmy Gopperth, Michael Hobbs).

Lavea rose to prominence a couple of years ago playing in a dominant Auckland side in the ANZC competition, and went on to further that form at Super 14 level for the Blues and more recently the Chiefs. Back with the Blues this year Lavea looks to be their preferred 1st 5 and started in this position for their first game against the Western Force. An elusive ball player, there are perhaps still the odd question marks over his delivery to players outside him, but he makes up for that with running skills and pace to burn, plus a very skillful boot when it comes to the cross field kick. Not recognised as a top goal kicker though.

Gopperth has shifted north from Wellington and will have his first season with the Blues this year. A reasonably consistent goal kicker, Gopperth nonetheless suffers from lack of consistency in his overall game. Some suggest that he is best suited to coming off the bench rather than starting, something he will be striving to rectify. While not noted as one of the top 1st 5s in the country, Gopperth still offers plenty on attack and is brave, if not always accurate, on defence.

Hobbs, another Wellington player who has ended up at the Blues from the draft, is not well known and until we see some game time from him at this level it’s hard to comment further. However, unless there is a run of bad injuries to others it would seem unlikely he is in contention at this stage.

Possible bolter: Toeava is not listed as a 1st 5 for the Blues, but does have the credentials to play in that position and has had the odd game there for both the Blues and Auckland. Might we see him there at some stage during this competition?

THE CHIEFS (Stephen Donald, Michael Delaney)

Donald has the inside running, having been named in the All Blacks in 2008 and having game time in a handful of test matches both during the TriNations and the end of year tour, as well as starting against Australia in the Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup test. As a player who has long struggled to get consistency in his game and dictate play on the field, he will be looking to solidify the form that got him his black jersey last year. One thing Donald does need to be aware of is his now-predictable little chip and chase, so some variation in that area would be welcomed. This season Donald needs to grab his opportunities with both hands, and prove that he has the mental stamina and vision to truly run a game without getting flustered.

Michael Delaney’s form for Bay of Plenty during the 2008 Air New Zealand Cup has been rewarded with a berth in the Chiefs’ squad. An electric runner with the ball in hand, Delaney is also an extremely proficient goal kicker. He has shown he is more than capable of directing a game at domestic level, so the next step for him is to prove himself at Super 14 level against international opposition.

THE HURRICANES (Willie Ripia, Daniel Kirkpatrick. Piri Weepu)

Ripia got his chances to show his wares towards the end of the 2008 Super 14, and he took them with both hands. He then backed this up with some exceptional form for Taranaki during the Air New Zealand Cup. Whether it be running, passing, or kicking, this boy has it all. But can he perform consistently at top level and take the right options? More importantly, will he get a chance to prove his worth with some starts for the Canes rather than coming off the bench?

Daniel Kirkpatrick was a member of the World Cup winning NZ U-20 side last year. While he shows plenty of promise, it is probably too early to be considering him for higher honours having only played a handful of domestic first class games and this being his first year of Super 14.

Piri Weepu has been selected as a halfback in the Canes’ squad, but with the likes of Jimmy Cowand and Brendon Leonard around he may well consider some time at 1st 5. Weepu is a strong player and has no hesitation in taking on the line, but there are question marks over his decision making. Does have a good goal kicking record.

THE CRUSADERS (Stephen Brett, Colin Slade)

Brett was heralded as the new Dan Carter two seasons ago when he appeared on the scene for Canterbury and the Crusaders, most notably in 2007 when the All Blacks were on their reconditioning programme for the first half of the Super 14. However, since then his star has faded slightly, partly due to injury and partly due to loss of form. While he can be mercurial on attack, Brett has been found out on defence on the inside channel so will need to work on this area of his game to regain not only his confidence but the confidence of the selectors.

Colin Slade made a meteoric rise during Canterbury’s Air New Zealand Cup season in 2008, going from being cover in the squad to first choice No 10. Such was his form that he kept Stephen Brett out of the position when he returned to the squad from injury. Slade has an uncanny knack to see a gap where there seemingly isn’t one, and so far has shown good instinct as to when to run or not. He has a good turn of pace for his size, and is a sound goal kicker. Defensively has no glaring defects. There is nothing startling about this 1st 5, but he performs the basics of the position well and doesn’t get bogged down when errors do crop up in his game. This season is a big test for him, stepping up another level to S14.

THE HIGHLANDERS (Daniel Bowden, Matt Berquist)

Bowden may not always set the world on fire with his goal kicking, but as a running 1st 5 he is quick of pace and has a good step to evade the defence. Whether his decision making under pressure can improve will be high on the list of “must have” criteria for his team. Will need to perform to keep Berquist on the bench.

Matt Berquist from Hawkes Bay is having his first season of S14 and moved to the Highlanders in the draft. A highly accurate goal kicker, Berquist is also a fine running 1st 5 and good ball distributor. He is also one of that rare breed of 1st 5 who can drop a goal. Question marks over his close-in defence, but should make the step up to Super rugby with relative ease provided his forward pack are performing.

13 Feb

THE 2009 SUPER 14
by Tracey Nelson
13 Feb 2009

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.

AUSTRALIAN TEAMS

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.