Crusaders set to lead New Zealand challenge again
January 26, 2009
Todd Blackadder has taken the reins of the Crusaders from Robbie Deans © Getty Images
Consider the fate of the 2008 Northland New Zealand Cup squad and you might begin to understand why much of provincial New Zealand is completely indifferent to Super rugby in general and the forthcoming Super 14 campaign in particular. The realities of professional sporting franchises have created an ever-expanding gulf between the game's elites and the grassroots so essential to these elites' survival.
Threatened with expulsion from the top tier of provincial competition in August 2008, a move which would have killed rugby north of Auckland, Northland managed mid-table respectability following victories over Blues franchise partners North Harbour (at Albany) and Auckland (at Eden Park).
After a woeful season under the coaching of Shane Howarth, Auckland, to the surprise of nobody, was rewarded with the lion's share of places in the Blues' squad. Veteran Northland flanker Justin Collins, back in Whangarei after spending his best years in Auckland, and an inspirational leader in 2008, put off retirement for one more year to take his rightful place in the squad, and mercurial winger/ fullback Rene Ranger made the breakthrough for the first time. But the best he can hope for in 2009 is time off the bench.
With such poor representation in the Blues' squad, and with all fixtures played at Albany or the building site that is currently Eden Park, there is not much for Northland rugby followers to get excited about. Just to make matters worse, stand-out performers from 2008 Jared Payne (fullback), Bronson Murray (prop) and Fetu'u Vainikolo (wing), have been lured away by Canterbury and Otago respectively.
One of the more obvious injustices of franchise rugby is that Otago has been designated one of the five franchise centres but has to recruit heavily from other regions to keep the franchise afloat. Other past Northland players in Dunedin include Daniel Bowden and Jason Shoemark. So grassroots rugby in the north can be sacrificed to ensure the survival of professional rugby in the south. I shall be watching attendance figures very closely in the coming months. Despite what the NZRFU would like us to believe, Super rugby is doing very little for the long-term health of the game in New Zealand.
In 2009 it will be curious to watch a Crusaders side go about their challenge with Todd Blackadder, not Robbie Deans, at the coaching helm. The Canterbury-based franchise go about their dynasty building in the same way that Liverpool FC used to. Shankly, followed by Paisley, followed by Dalglish. In Canterbury's case we hardly noticed as Wayne Smith was succeeded by Robbie Deans, who was succeeded by former playing lieutenant Blackadder. Without Dan Carter, on a French sabbatical, to guide the ship, Colin Slade, who made a big New Zealand Cup impression, will have an opportunity to shine and establish his international credentials.
Half back partner Andy Ellis, because of injury and the progress made by rival Jimmy Cowan, lost his place in the All Black pecking order and will be desperate to re-establish himself. The form of young midfield backs Stephen Brett and Tim Bateman will be closely watched as they seek to achieve consistency and take the next step forward. Casey Laulala has been a consistent force for the Crusaders and with so much youth around him will assume a key leadership role in 2009. It is by no means clear how much of a part veteran All Black fullback Leon MacDonald will play after recurring problems associated with a number of concussions in recent seasons.
The loss of coach Deans and the one-season Ali Williams, back in Auckland after the departure of Aussie coach David Nucifora, would seem to place greater responsibility on All Black skipper Richie McCaw. But I am sure Blackadder will be looking to outstanding young forwards Kieran Read and Michael Patterson to accept their share of the work load. Thomas Waldrom is a very interesting recruit from Wellington and the experienced Brad Thorn, Corey Flynn and Ross Filipo will add forward ballast. Young flanker George Whitelock is highly rated and was on the verge of All Black selection at the end of 2008. There is no shortage of talent and experience to take the Crusaders forward into the Blackadder era.
The Blues are in a similar situation. It will be hoped that the appointment of Pat Lam as head coach will arrest the under-achievement of the Blues since the days of Graham Henry in the late 90s. A solitary title in 2003, under the leadership of Peter Sloane, is the only good news this decade.
In their favour they have a pack that looks formidable, Afoa, Woodcock, Mealamu, Williams and Boric an All Black front five. In the back row they have the power of 2008 All Black regular Jerome Kaino to complement the guile of Justin Collins and former Highlander Josh Blackie, a much under-rated player.
There is no shortage of backline talent: Rococoko, Tuitavake, Wulf, Toeava, Stanley, but a possible weakness at half back which could undermine the effectiveness of the link between forwards and backs. It is unlikely that either the veteran Tasesa Lavea or the Wellington discard Jimmy Gopperth will provide the necessary stability and consistency.
This year will be a crucial season for Chiefs' half backs Brendon Leonard and Stephen Donald. Leonard broke into the All Blacks in time for Rugby World Cup 2007, but injury last year destroyed his season. Can he recapture his old form and in the process challenge Jimmy Cowan for that All Black spot? Donald finds himself in a different situation. He made his international breakthrough in 2008 but at times looked out of his depth in All Black colours. For a different reason, therefore, he needs to rehabilitate himself.
In Richard Kahui, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Sosene Anesi and Mils Muliaina the Chiefs have familiar and formidable firepower. But the forwards have a less settled look. Flanker Liam Messam, hooker Hika Elliott and lock Kevin O'Neill all made All Black debuts in 2008 and coach Ian Foster will be looking to them to lead the charge. Backrower Sione Lauaki has off-field behaviour issues to resolve before he can begin to restore his on-field credibility.
An assessment of the Hurricanes' chances becomes an annual exercise in weighing potential against what is likely to happen. They have formidable playing resources: John Schwalger, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Scott Waldrom and Rodney So'oialo provide the basis of a formidable pack of forwards and in Piri Weepu, Cory Jane, Tamati Ellison, Conrad Smith, Hosea Gear and Ma'a Nonu they have some of the best, most exciting backs in New Zealand rugby. However, successive coaches have proven unable to harness this talent consistently.
For quite a while now the Highlanders have had a makeshift look and in 2009 this looks set to continue. Heavily reliant on the likes of Jimmy Cowan, Adam Thomson and Jamie Mackintosh, they lack the depth to sustain a challenge for a semi-final place. My earlier point about crowd numbers is particularly applicable to the Highlanders who, in recent times, have really struggled for an identity and an impact.
Despite all the changes in personnel, I do not anticipate much changing on the field of play in 2009. The Crusaders will represent New Zealand's most potent threat, the Blues , Hurricanes and Chiefs will flatter to deceive and the Highlanders will bring up the rear.