18 Mar

Half Time in the Super 14
by Tracey Nelson
18 Mar 2007

We have reached the halfway point in the 2007 Super 14 Competition in the year when 22 All Blacks were absent for the first seven weeks, reconditioning as preparation for the upcoming World Cup in September.

So what is the lie of the land now that we’re about to see the re-introduction of the All Blacks back into the NZ franchises and hit the second half of the competition? There is certainly a different look to the top of the table than in previous years, with two South African teams filling 1st and 4th spots, and The Force filling 3rd place.

There is less surprise that the Blues are sitting in 2nd, as they had retained a handy number of seasoned players and only had four All Blacks (Woodcock, Mealamu, Williams and Rokocoko) out. The Blues have a favourable draw this year with seven home games and they met the Crusaders minus their All Blacks in the first round. Their only hiccup has been a loss to the Hurricanes. With three home and four away games left to play they are seemingly assured of a top four finish if they can win at least four (with the hapless Waratahs and Chiefs amongst the upcoming games would you bet against the Blues being semifinalists?), although they have yet to tour South Africa. David Nucifora seems to have finally injected some patience and calm into this side, and his selection of Isa Nacewa at 1st 5 has paid dividends in spades with the backline cutting some merry capers to gain three bonus points from four-try victories.

The Crusaders are cruising ominously in 5th place, with a 3 from 6 win record to date while minus seven All Blacks (Somerville, Jack, Thorne, McCaw, Carter, Mauger, MacDonald). They should have won their game against the unbeaten Sharks in Durban but for a mind implosion on full time that allowed the Sharks to score the winning try. However, they will be fairly pleased to be just out of the top four with such an inexperienced side – their latest demolition of the Bulls was good reward to the young players coach Robbie Deans has shown faith in, and they have responded well to their challenge. Having completed their South African leg, four home games in the remaining seven and the return of their All Blacks there would be few around who wouldn’t be backing them to make the final four.

The Highlanders have been the quiet achievers, going about their business without the fanfare of media coverage the other NZ teams seem to command. They have been minus two All Blacks in Hayman and Oliver, have won 3 of their 6 games to date and finally have shaken the bonus point monkey off their back by gaining fourth try bonus point wins against both the Stormers and Reds. They too have completed their South African tour, and have five home and two away games to complete. Despite having to meet the Crusaders and Hurricanes back at full strength the draw is still looking favourable for the Highlanders to push for the final four.

The Hurricanes were the next hardest hit after the Crusaders with six All Blacks out (Hore, Eaton, Collins, Masoe, So’oialo and Weepu) and minus the majority of their pack have reverted to type to be the up and down team of yesteryear. Their wins to date have mostly been seat of the pants affairs, and they have won just 3 from their 7 games. They still have the bye to come and will have six games left to climb from the lower half of the table into the top four, which includes flying back from South Africa to take on the Bulls, and meeting the Crusaders in Christchurch. Will their returning All Blacks be enough or has it become mission impossible?

Then the Chiefs. So much was hoped for them given the core of their side was made up from the Air New Zealand Cup winning Waikato side, and they only had three All Blacks out (Kelleher, Muliaina, Sivivatu). But the Chiefs have taken until the seventh round to jerk themselves out of first gear, having lost four and drawing the other of their first five games. They have also suffered one of the worst runs of injuries along the way. Luckily they collected some close-loss bonus points and must have done some soul searching during the bye, before finally producing a good win at home against the Lions in round seven to place them mid-table at the halfway point. They too have completed their South African leg and have three home and four away games left to play, but will meet the Blues, Highlanders, Force, Sharks and Crusaders amongst those.

The wheels seem to have fallen off the Australian teams in a big way, with the Waratahs and Reds filling 13th and 14th place respectively. The Brumbies aren’t faring much better, and are also suffering from the same run of bad injuries as the Waratahs and Reds. The Force are their only shining light, but have to play the Sharks, Crusaders and Blues amongst their final six games. The inclusion of a fourth Australian side in the competition seems to be hitting Aussie player depth ranks hard, and I suspect they may well be wishing they’d sat their Wallabies out for a few weeks as the All Blacks have done – although one shudders to think how much worse the Australian sides would have been under that scenario.

The Sharks are the only unbeaten side so far, and along with the Bulls are in the leading pack – although they have only played one game away from home and haven’t yet left the shores of South Africa. However, with three home games still remaining they are looking good to stay in the top four. The Bulls have made history by winning two games on the trot in Australia, although they came back to earth with a thump against the Crusaders this week and have two more games in NZ before returning home for one away and three home games. The Cheetahs seem doomed as all their remaining six games are away, while the Stormers are mid to lower table and will meet the Crusaders before returning to South Africa during their bye for one away and three home games amongst which they will meet the Blues and Sharks.

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