Stage set for tournament of two halves
February 1, 2007
Sandwiched between a summer which only seriously got going a couple of weeks ago (the kids haven't even gone back to school after their long vacation!) and the World Cup which looms in September, the start of this year's Super 14 has attracted even less attention than usual.
A sporting circus which moves ever further away from the rugby and social grassroots in New Zealand, Super 14 necessarily provides gainful employment for the country's top professionals whilst providing Sky Television with a live alternative to that other sporting circus currently travelling around Australia.
Which, if we get away from the political cynicism for a moment, is not to say that the rugby won't be very good, in fact mostly brilliant. I suppose no season is ever quite like another, but pre-season manoeuverings by the All Black management, which it seems they have largely got away with, means that Super 14 2007 will be, to borrow a cliche , a tournament of two halves.
Twenty three All Blacks will be missing from action until some time in April. Conditioning themselves, strengthening themselves, building up the reserves of stamina, guarding against the effects of burn-out and protecting themselves against the ravages of injury.
Except that sporting life isn't quite that straightforward and as much as Graham Henry would like to go into the World Cup with the squad that just recently shocked and awed Europe, he knows as well as anyone that there is still a long time to go and there is no known course of inoculation to protect against injury and loss of form.
This is where interest for the real rugby aficionado lies, where the sub-plots start to offer intrigue.The Blues' Doug Howlett , Sam Tuitupou and Troy Flavell will each still harbour All Black ambitions and the only way they can force themselves into contention is by playing a storming Super 14 campaign. Luke McAlister, currently in pole position for the All Black no 12 jersey, can't get a start in the opener against the Crusaders which tends to underline my point : nothing is certain in the months ahead , even if pundits like to map out a path of certainty for us.
For the Crusaders, inevitably defending champions and the side everyone will be gunning for, Rico Gear will have wondered why he was not one of the Chosen. Does this mean that seeds of doubt will have undermined his play or simply fired him up?
Other Crusaders with points to prove include skipper Corey Flynn and 2006 All Blacks Scott Hamilton and Mose Tuiali'i. And you have to admire the stamina of the much derided and much under-rated Caleb Ralph, first an All Black back in the mists of 1998. Backstage, former All Black hooker Mark Hammett is making a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, in 2007 understudying the maestro, Robbie Deans.
For the Chiefs, back rowers Marty Holah and Sione Lauaki could yet figure in World Cup plans and skipper Jono Gibbes, having flirted with semi-obscurity in Welsh club rugby, is clearly not a spent force.
The Chiefs, apart from John Mitchell's one year in charge, before he took the All Blacks to semi final ignominy , have never quite got to grips with Super rugby. Which is very odd, because they are regular contenders in New Zealand's NPC/ Air New Zealand Cup, when they appear as Waikato.
This will be a big year for the Hurricanes' Conrad Smith and he starts it in Brisbane skippering the Hurricanes. He has always seemed to have a smart rugby brain so it will be interesting to see how Smith copes in this role.
However, his pack, shorn of the likes of Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo, could be considered lightweight, although relative veteran Paul Tito ( he is actually not very old but has played quite a lot of top class rugby ) will be keen to impress before tramping off to the lucrative pay roll of the world's other Blues' franchise.
The Highlanders look even shorter of big names than they normally do.Down there in the deep south professional rugby has brought mixed blessings and the Otago franchise is the one which has most depended on drafted imports : Nick Evans and Craig Newby to mention the most obvious recent examples. They have a tough opener against the Force in Perth, fielding a less than tried and tested back division.
But we are going to see a lot of that in the opening rounds. Players who are less than household names sprinkled throughout the franchises ( isn't that a charmless term- whatever happened to the word team ?) Who , with hand on heart, could confidently identify the franchise- affiliation of the following - Craig Clare, Sam Biddles, Aled De Malmanche, Serge Lilo or Jonathan Poff ?
Answers on a postcard, please.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
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