New Zealand conference Super-close to call
February 19, 2013
Veteran lock Brad Thorn returns to Super Rugby with the Highlanders in 2013. © Getty Images
The defending champion Chiefs and perennially-strong Crusaders present the most compelling case that New Zealand will claim a 12th title in the 18th edition of Super Rugby. Deeper rosters at the Hurricanes and Highlanders and some bright signs from the overhauled Blues points to a keenly-fought New Zealand conference over the next five months.
New Zealand Rugby Union boss Steve Tew boasted at a recent competition launch that South African and Australian teams will struggle to match the quality on show in his country. Tew may be biased, but an absence of serious injuries and a trickle, rather than torrent, of top players heading offshore since last year leaves a Kiwi conference brimming with class and depth.
Picking who will emerge top among the five franchises is no easy task. Local bookmakers say the Crusaders will end a four-year habit of faltering in the playoffs under coach Todd Blackadder since predecessor Robbie Deans steered them to title No.7 in 2008. The red and blacks will miss peerless flanker Richie McCaw, who is on a sabbatical for most of the competition.
However, a clutch of other All Blacks in the pack and the guiding hand of Dan Carter at fly-half suggests a 15th visit to the playoffs is close to inevitable. Once there, Blackadder reckons they'll be in a better mental space than in recent years.
"If anything, probably we've bought into that too much - it's always been about winning a title or else you're gone," Blackadder said. "Nothing's changed but we're going to enjoy it this year and the end result will take care of itself."
The Chiefs have reached the post-season just three times - less than any New Zealand outfit - but fully deserved their maiden crown in 2012. Coach Dave Rennie's introduction of players he trusted to the franchise and a no-frills attitude paid dividends as they improved from 10th to first.
It's a more settled lineup for the Chiefs this year, although they'll miss the x-factor that Sonny Bill Williams brought to the midfield. That shouldn't matter, says Rennie, whose side are sure to be as methodical up front and base much of their attack around the selective strikes of No.10 Aaron Cruden.
"In the past the Chiefs have had a lot of rock stars and probably not a lot of workers," Rennie said. "We're making sure we've got complementary players and the balance right."
The Hurricanes and Highlanders will have designs on higher finishes than their eighth and ninth respectively last year. Coach Mark Hammett has lost star winger Cory Jane to a season-ending knee injury but his young Hurricanes backline achieved thrilling deeds without Jane in 2012, playing the brightest football of any team. There's no reason five-eighth Beauden Barrett and outside backs Julian Savea and Andre Taylor can't shine again behind a bullish young pack boosted by prop Ben Franks from the Crusaders.
For major off-season transfers, though, nobody beats the previously-unfashionable Highlanders, who have added the considerable muscle of Brad Thorn at lock and lured veteran Blues All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu south. Those departures were a body blow to a Blues side already stripped of numerous players from their tumultuous campaign under departed coach Pat Lam which ended in a worst-ever placing of 12th.
Sir John Kirwan - with support from assistant Sir Graham Henry - has been left to mould a raw squad, half of whom are new to this level. The two knights have conjured a promising Blues pre-season campaign but that has done little to quieten dire season predictions for the three-time champions.
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