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Litmus test looms for depleted NZ sides
NZPA Staff
February 1, 2007

Just when there no longer seems the need for a diversion from the New Zealand cricket team's trials and tribulations, the oval ball bounces into view to blur the boundary between seasons.

From tomorrow night rugby will attempt to muscle into summer's domain, and although the national sport can always expect to overshadow even the best efforts of the Black Caps, the latest edition of the Super 14 is by no means a guaranteed success.

The absence of 22 All Blacks for the first seven rounds of the competition will surely impact on crowd numbers -- a fact the franchises grudgingly accept as the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) focuses squarely on the World Cup.

NZRU deputy chief executive Steve Tew prefers to wait until the competition is well underway before gauging the public's response, although the atmosphere at Eden Park when the Blues host the Crusaders tomorrow night will provide a telling indication.

While both sides are depleted -- the Crusaders are missing seven World Cup contenders, the Blues four -- the NZRU has hammered home the fact 22 past or present All Blacks will trot out in the tournament curtainraiser.

All up, 37 past or current All Blacks will be involved in round one although the likes of Sosene Anesi and Scott Hamilton have only three caps between them.

Tew reminds doubters `there are still a significant number of players in the first seven rounds that can push themselves into World Cup contention".

Blues captain Troy Flavell and Crusaders counterpart Corey Flynn fit into that category but All Blacks selections aside, any battle between north and south usually sells itself.

About 20,000 tickets have been snapped up, so Eden Park will be about half full.

Tew claims the missing star quality will not be solely to blame for any lukewarm response from fans.

"The weather, how the teams perform and in a funny sort of way how the Blacks Caps are performing in Australia will have probably have a bearing as well," he said.

However, there was no skirting the debilitating issue of conditioning All Blacks although Tew points out the franchises affected the most -- the Crusaders and Hurricanes -- will ultimately benefit from the round eight return of players in "pristine" condition.

Until then last year's finalists have to rely on a clutch of up and coming players.

The Crusaders will debut blindside flank Kieran Read while the Hurricanes will unleash two headline-grabbing backs from last year's Air New Zealand Cup -- Cory Jane and David Smith -- against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday night.

The Hurricanes must also field a new loose trio with Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo and Chris Masoe all off limits.

Fortunately for coach Colin Cooper, the Hurricanes have at least been handed a reasonable first-up assignment against a Reds side lacking inspirational fullback Chris Latham.

His replacement, league convert Clinton Schifcofske, is sure to be targeted in what will be just his fifth game of rugby.

Another former National Rugby League (NRL) star, Sydney Rooster Ryan Cross, also makes his Super rugby debut although it is the performance of Wallabies utility Matt Giteau that will command most attention from the Highlanders -- and the crowd -- at Subiaco Oval in Perth tomorrow night.

Lured from the Brumbies for $A4.5 million ($NZ5.14 million) over three years, Giteau will play at first five-eighth against a Highlanders side missing their own classy No 10 in Nick Evans.

Giteau's former Brumbies teammates arrived in Hamilton today for their opener on Saturday night against a Chiefs side unusually saddled with a weight of expectation.

Following Waikato's provincial success last year, the Chiefs, sporting a pack unaffected by All Blacks conditioning, have targeted the playoffs as the bare minimum.

The Brumbies, a side they have not beaten since 1999, will provide an early test of how realistic that goal is.

Wallabies playmaker Stephen Larkham will be missing on maternity leave but the two-time champions still boast plenty of class in the backs with George Gregan, Stirling Mortlock, Clyde Rathbone and Mark Gerrard capable of cutting loose.

Coach Laurie Fisher has named openside flankers George Smith and Julian Salvi to both pack down in a bid to negate Marty Holah.

Further afield the Waratahs are the first team to visit South Africa, kicking off against the rebranded Lions in Johannesburg while the remainder of the round sees the Sharks host the Bulls and Stormers head to the high veldt to face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

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