The final Super 14 is just days away from kicking off, with next year seeing the start of the expanded Super 15 competition. So will the perennial favourite the Crusaders take out the last Super 14 title, or will it be back to back championships for the Bulls? Maybe the Chiefs can go one better than making the final last year, or will the Hurricanes finally shake their chokers tag? Perhaps the Brumbies will rise like the phoenix, with all their new signings. Just how will the teams fare? Haka takes a look.
Last year finished: 9th
The Blues have been struck a huge blow before their season even starts with Ali Williams rupturing his achilles, putting him out of all rugby for 6 months. Losing such an important senior player and their key lock is sure to put a large dent in the plans of coach Pat Lam, and puts the onus on Anthony Boric to take up the mantle of senior lock. With 12 past or present All Blacks in the squad there is experience and skill in the Blues front row and backs,but there may be some question marks around the all important 8-9-10 axis with Serge Lilo, Alby Mathewson and Stephen Brett all new-comers to the squad. With an All Black front row in Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and John Afoa the Blues should hold their own at scrum time, but lack a proven world-class openside flanker could be telling against the top sides.
Key players: Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Luke McAlister, Isaia Toeava, Joe Rokocoko
Last year finished: Runners up (beaten by Bulls in final)
2009 was a stellar year for the Chiefs, where for once they were not ravaged by injury and finally fulfilled the promise their supporters had been touting for years. With only one draft player new to the squad this season they will be wanting to continue the form they showed right through the competition until that fateful final against the Bulls. Of great interest will be to see which of their All Black first fives will get the nod to start, with both Stephen Donald and Mike Delany taken on the end of year tour in 2009. The other selection to watch will be that of Sione Lauaki competing with Colin Bourke for the No 8 jersey. The return of Richard Kahui at centre after spending most of 2009 injured will further bolster a backline with speed to burn.
Key players: Kevin O’Neill, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Brendon Leonard, Mike Delany, Richard Kahui, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina
Last year finished: Semi finalists (beaten by Chiefs in semi)
It was more of the same last year for the Hurricanes, who again fell at the last hurdle and continued the ongoing choker tag for teams based in the captital city. This is the last season Colin Cooper will be coaching the Canes, and he’ll be hoping his side can final shake the speed wobbles and live up to their potential. As usual the Canes are stacked with talent, and all eyes will be on young Aaron Cruden in his first season of Super rugby – can he make the step up and look to potentially fill the gaping vacancy as an All Black back up to Dan Carter? Cruden will have plenty of experience around him in the likes of ROdney So’oialo, Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and with a pack boasting plenty of All Blacks there is no reason to expect anything less than a placing in the top few teams. But can they take it all the way this year?
Key players: Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane
Last year finished: Semi finalists (beaten by Bulls in semi)
The fact that the Crusaders made the top four last year minus Dan Carter, not to mention the departure at the end of 2008 of several key senior players and long serving coach Robbie Deans should have been viewed as nothing short of miraculous, but the fact remains that the Crusaders have bred a successful dynasty that doesn’t know how to do anything other than suceed. So with a season of Super 14 under his belt, Todd Blackadder will be feeling pretty confident when he looks at the squad at his disposal this year. Not only is Dan Carter back this season alongside the skills of captain fantastic Richie McCaw, but the addition of youngsters Robbie Fruean and Zac GUildford and the return of veteran campaigner Chris Jack to the squad makes the Crusaders hard to go past as almost dead certs yet again for the play offs.
Key players: Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Zac Guildford
Last year finished: 11th
While the Highlanders have the least number of All Blacks in their squad, the ones they have are instrumental to the style of game the Highlanders play. Adam Thomson’s workrate and skills at the breakdown make him a pivotal player alongside the powerful running of Alando Soaki and Tim Boys. Josh Bekhius is one lock who is not afraid to step up and accurately contest the opposition lineout, and will be complemented by the hard working Tom Donnelly. The up and coming Robbie Robinson is one to watch at first five as he makes the step up to Super rugby, while the silky running and aerial skills of both Israel Dagg and Ben Smith in the three quarters will provide the Highlanders with plenty of strike power. What the Highlanders will need to do this season is to turn pressure into points, an area of the game that has let the down in recent years.
Key players: Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Jimmy Cowan, Robbie Robinson, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg
Last year finished: 13th
Almost the Australian equivalent of the Hurricanes, the Reds can turn on some scintillating running rugby at times – but then look like a complete rabble the following week. The appointment of Ewen McKenzie (sacked from the Waratahs) should help steady this side, but they lack key experienced players to take them all the way. In their favour they have Will Genia and Quade Cooper running their backline, so provided their forwards can compete and provide them with some ball don’t expect the Reds to be easy beats. However it is unlikely they will competiting for play-off positions at the business end of the competition.
Key players: Daniel Braid, Will Genia, Quade Cooper
Last year finished: 5th
In 2009 they were one of the most painful sides to watch, and even their supporters looked bored at times with the bland form of rugby they dished up. Yet at times they played wonderfully, so this year they will be looking to be more expansive and the addition of Berrick Barnes should provide the backline with better direction than they had in 2008. With Phil Waugh at openside the Waratahs will remain a hard team to beat in Sydney, but it remains to be seen if they can shake off the shadows of last season and reinvent themselves.
Key players: Ben Robinson, Dean Mumm, Phil Waugh, Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell
Last year finished: 7th
The Brumbies have made two key signings in Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom, and loom as the Australian side to beat in 2010. With the seasoned players like Stirling Mortlock and Justin Harrison (who has returned from Europe), there is a heady mix of youth and experience in the Brumbies side. It will also be George Smith’s last hoorah as he looks retire from international rugby and to head to Europe at the end of this Super 14, so the emotion factor will also come into play. It’s never been easy to win in Canberra, and this year looks to be no different. Should make the top four.
Key players: Mark Chisholm, Rocky Elsom, George Smith, Matt Giteau, Stirling Mortlock, Ada
Last year finished: 8th
Much like the Highlanders, the Force are also a side who know how to grab defeat from the jaws of victory with many of their losses being by a mere two or three points in the final minutes of the game. Coach John Mitchell has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons with rumours of player revolts, and the loss of key players such as Matt Giteau, Scott Staniforth and Drew Mitchell will not help their cause – nor will the loss of Andre Pretorious who was signed as their marquee international but suffered a season ending hamstring tear one week out from the start of the competition. It’s hard to see the Force being any sort of force this year.
Key players: David Pocock, James O’Conner, Ryan Cross, Cameron Shepherd.
Last year finished: Champions
Loftus Versfeldt has become something of a fortress and along with the Crusaders’ home ground is probably the hardest stadium to win at for the visiting side. With names such as Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, this side is nothing short of formidable both in size and their ability to turn the heat on when it counts. It also doesn’t help that Steyn can kick goals from the other side of halfway. While they have lost a strike weapon in Bryan Habana, who has gone to the Stormers, what should be worrying their opposition is that inspirational former coach Heyneke Meyer (who only lost out on the Springbok coaching role due to the internal politics of South Africa) is now the Bulls director of rugby and is instrumental in the development of their player succession plan – based around the Crusaders’ successful formula. The only thing that could hamstring the Bulls on their way to the play-offs is injury and player fatigue following the heavy load their Springboks had in 2009.
Key players: Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Wynand Olivier
Last year finished: 6th
Boasting players such as Ryan Kankowski, Bismark du Plessis, John Schmidt, JP Pietersen and Ruan Pienaar this was a side that looked to be going to go all the way last year, but inexplicably the wheels fell off towards the end of the season and they failed to make the play-offs. For a side stacked full of Springboks with a very favourable draw where they played most of the top sides at home, this must have been frustrating for coach John Plumtree and vaguely reminiscent of his time with Wellington. A key signing for them this year is Argentinian Juan Martin Hernandez who plays first five and fullback. The big question is, can the Sharks get their headspace right this year and maintain their momentum through to the play-offs or, much like last year, will they again struggle to score tries?
Key players: Beast Mtawarira, Ryan Kankowski, Bisark du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Juan Martin Hernandez
Last year finished: 10th
The Stormers have gained the services of Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie, but whether they can turn around the fortunes of the Stormers remains to be seen. Last season was a bit of a rollercoaster ride for this side, with some great wins on the road offset by some very sub-par performances at home. Conrad Jantjes will be returning from his horrific leg injury to reclaim the fullback jersey, and Schalk Burger will be leading the side at openside flanker. This relatively young side should have learnt a lot from last year, so will be looking to build on their experiences. However, they are not likely to be contesting the play-offs.
Key players: Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana
Last year finished: Last
The Cheetahs are that annoying team who by all odds should be easy to beat yet often prove to be quite the opposite when at home. While they are unlikely to make the top four, they will nonetheless be that banana skin for any side who takes the too lightly. In their favour they have the outstanding flanker Heinrich Broussow at their disposal, and should he stay injury free he will form a formidable pairing with Juan Smith that will make the breakdown hard work for any side that comes up against them.
Key players: Heinrich Broussow, Juan Smith,
Last year finished: 12th
On paper they would seem the most likely wooden spooners, but the appointment of Springbok assistant coach Dick Muir as director of coaching should be sounding some warning bells. Their key signing for this year is Carlos Spencer, who impressed during his first outing in their pre-season game over the weekend. Like the Cheetahs, they will no doubt tip up one of the big sides but against them is the road trip from hell where they have to play the Hurricanes, Brumbies, Waratahs, Crusaders and Highlanders in succession. Not exactly how you’d want to introduce a squad of relatively inexperienced players to the rigours of touring.
Key players: Carlos Spencer, Earl Rose, Marius Delport