That winning feeling
February 21, 2012
Will Isreal Dagg be celebrating more success - but this time on the domestic scene? © Getty Images
With New Zealand World Champions, an unfamiliar state of affairs in the professional era, the imminence of the first round of Super Rugby action should have set the collective pulses racing. But it does not feel like that. If anything, the varied rugby diet offered at the World Cup, along with the passionate tribal loyalties expressed by the Tongans, Irish and Welsh, to name just a few, placed in context the contrived and emotionless fare to which the rugby watching public is subjected at provincial level in the southern hemisphere.
It would be absurd to suggest that professional rugby under the jurisdiction of SANZAR is in crisis but the disconnection between it and the punter remains an issue with which there is a reluctance to grapple. Is it complacency on the part of the authorities or simply the stranglehold that the television rights owners exert over the game? I am sure that as the season unfolds, and then extends into the expanded Test series which this year includes the Argentineans for the first time, the politics of the game will come under ever closer scrutiny. The rumblings of discontent surrounding the organization of regional rugby in Wales have a resonance in New Zealand, those parts of the Old World where regionalization and enfranchisement have ridden roughshod over the game's rich history.
At the beginning of the four- year World Cup cycle there is a fresh start, of sorts, for players and particularly coaches in New Zealand. With the retirement of Graham Henry and Wayne Smith's sideways move to the Chiefs, it could be argued that the best New Zealand coaches are now offshore, with Warren Gatland looking likely to expand his European experience with the Lions in Australia in 2013. So there is a golden opportunity for the next generation of New Zealand-based coaches to establish or further their All Blacks coaching claims.
One -time All Blacks back row hardman Jamie Joseph made a good impression in his first season as Highlanders' coach in 2011. As well as being a good technical coach he is clearly an impressive motivator who can extract unexpected things from players who had previously shown only modest form or skills. The Hurricanes' Mark Hammett, a product of the Canterbury academy, endured a torrid 2011 which culminated in the much-publicised departure north of Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu. In 2012 he needs to show that there was a point in all that and that his authority over the squad can be translated into on-field performance.
Former Wellington NPC coach Dave Rennie is the most interesting addition to the Super Rugby coaching roster. With Ian Foster's promotion as Steve Hansen's All Black assistant there is a real opportunity for Rennie to revive and develop a franchise which has never really fulfilled its considerable promise. Former All Blacks' skipper Todd Blackadder is maintaining the Crusaders' formidable momentum and probably remains the favourite for elevation to the All Blacks' coaching ranks at some point. The Blues' Pat Lam will be under severe pressure in 2012 to deliver success at a very well resourced franchise but the doubts persist about his true abilities at this level.
With transfers overseas and within the New Zealand franchises the squads have some intriguing combinations. How will Nonu's and Weepu's addition to the Blues affect the Aucklanders' performance? A backline including those two, along with Rene Ranger, Rudi Wulf, Benson Stanley, Sherwin Stowers and Isaia Toeava promises much but the sum of the Blues' parts rarely delivers. Since the time of Carlos Spencer the Blues have never fielded a fly half who could consistently control a game's tactics. This year it looks no different with youngsters like Gareth Anscombe and Michael Hobbs likely to be entrusted with the playmaker role. Amongst the forwards there is a formidable core of top class experience: skipper Keven Mealamu, the formidable presence of Tony Woodcock and Jerome Kaino and the energy and street wisdom of Ali Williams, Anthony Boric, Brad Mika and Daniel Braid. Few packs should get the better of this bunch.
Whilst the Hurricanes' headlines have focused on the internal ructions and the high profile defections, coach Hammett is still left with a core of experience and class. Conrad Smith and Cory Jane are amongst the world's best backs, and Tim Bateman, Tusi Pisi, Beauden Barrett, Andre Taylor and Daniel Kirkpatrick may just provide the hunger to finally ignite a franchise which has traditionally flattered to deceive. New skipper Victor Vito will have the experience of Jeremy Thrush, Jason Eaton, Karl Lowe, Dane Coles and Ben May to call upon, but the reputation of this pack is for the making.
The Chiefs' main attraction will undoubtedly be that arch sports mercenary Sonny Bill Williams, but he will find himself surrounded by some very useful backs. No Mils Muliaina, of course, but Aaron Cruden, Tim Nanai-Williams and Robbie Robinson are stars of the future. Of course, in the absence of Dan Carter, Cruden did enjoy some World Cup action, and made a big impression whilst his fitness lasted. When Carter's All Blacks days are finally done, Cruden looks to be in pole position to replace him. Richard Kahui, as a winger rather than a centre, was another who had a good World Cup and Lelia Masaga remains a lethal finisher of half chances. Amongst the forwards, the experienced back rowers Liam Messam, Scott Waldrom and Tanerau Latimer will carry a huge workload, but other experienced campaigners such as Hika Elliott, Craig Clarke, Mahonri Schwalger and Kane Thompson will provide ballast.
After his well-publicised falling out with Mark Hammett, All Blacks hooker and former Hurricanes' skipper Andrew Hore finds himself under the guidance of Jamie Joseph at the Highlanders in 2012. This may be just what he needs to revive a career which was ravaged by injury last year. Adam Thomson, Josh Bekhuis, Jamie Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge, Jarrod Hoetea and Englishman James Haskell all promise to contribute to what could constitute a formidable Otago forward pack. Hosea Gear's departure from the capital should galvanise the southern backs, Kendrick Lynn and former All Black Ben Smith are class performers and fly half Colin Slade will want to eradicate the memories of what turned out to be an embarrassing World Cup campaign for him.
I think we can expect the expected from the Crusaders, in search of their eighth Super Rugby title. In the initial absence of All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, the side will be led by Kieran Read and lent a hand up front by the formidable presence of the Franks brothers, Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn, assorted Whitelocks, the transferred Tom Donnelly and the rising back row star Matt Todd. The largely unknown Tyler Bleyendaal will deputise for Dan Carter until he is fully fit again, but what an opportunity for the youngster. Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland, Ryan Crotty, Robbie Fruean, Zac Guildford and Tom Marshall form a more than useful back division and scrum half Andrew Ellis enjoyed a superb World Cup and is at the peak of his powers.
I expect the Crusaders to once again offer New Zealand's most potent challenge but I am also expecting the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes to challenge for honours. I am not expecting very much from the Blues at all!
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