Feb 15, 2008
By Joel Tiller
Well the debate over whether the public is rugby fatigued, has World Cup trauma and whether the new experimental law variations are madness, or genius, has been underway months but all of the sudden it's time for true rugby fans to put the hot air behind them.
The 2008 Super 14 season in upon us on Friday night.
Crusaders v Brumbies,
AMI Stadium in Christchurch (Friday)
The Crusaders had a slow start to last season, falling to the Blues in an entertaining opener at Eden Park, struggling to beat the lowly Reds a week later and bumbling to a ugly 9-3 loss to the Lions in the Republic.
In typical Crusaders style they picked up steam through the middle to late stages of the season before their emphatic semi-final defeat at the hands of the rampaging Bulls.
This season the Red and Black men will be hungry to snatch some momentum immediately.
The Brumbies started 2007 in similarly scratchy style. The men from the ACT began with an impressive away win over the Chiefs before narrowly beating the Reds in one of the worst games of Super 14 rugby ever witnessed by this writer.
These two sides met only once last season with the Brumbies prevailing 15-6 in Canberra on an emotion filled night for the locals as George Gregan and Stephen Larkham made their last Super rugby appearances at Canberra Stadium.
The Brumbies have a passable Super 14 record against the Crusaders with six wins and eight loss, but have failed in their previous four appearances in Christchurch.
The Brumbies will field a significantly less experienced backline than their hosts this Friday night and four players will earn their first Brumbies caps. Two of those - No.10 Christian Lealiifano and reserve back Tyronne Smith - have never played S14 before.
The other two - 2007 Waratah halfback Josh Holmes and former Stormer/Tahs hooker Huia Edmonds - have limited experience as predominantly bench players for their previous franchises.
The visitors' pack looks solid to say the least with a talented young locking pairing and dangerous back row trio of Jone Tawake, George Smith and Stephen Hoiles their greatest strengths. They have strike power out wide with former Tasman Makos speedster Peter Playford on the left wing and accomplished former Wallaby wing Mark Gerrard prowling the right touchline.
For the Crusaders mercurial former Blues star and All Black Ali Williams makes his debut at lock and will be accompanied by two fellow debutants Kahn Fotuali'i (halfback) and Kade Poki (right wing) both of Tasman Makos origin.
Former All Black and Brisbane Broncos (on again, off again) stalwart, Brad Thorn returns to Rugby Union action after a break of two years to partner Williams in rugged second row combo. Otherwise the Crusaders forward pack is unchanged from the well rounded eight that carried them to the semis last year.
In the backline the biggest talking point appears to be Stephen Brett lining up outside Daniel Carter to form a tantalisingly dynamic first five, second five pairing. The Crusaders have abundant experience at left wing, centre and most notably at fullback where All Black Leon MacDonald plays his 100th game as a Crusader.
The Crusaders appear to have the edge in experience and class in their front row and in the centres. They have had little disruption to the core of their squad from last season and all indicators point to opening round Cantabrian victory.
Prediction: Crusaders by 14 or more.
Crusaders: 15.Leon MacDonald, 14.Kade Poki, 13.Casey Laulala, 12.Stephen Brett, 11.Scott Hamilton, 10.Daniel Carter, 9.Kahn Fotuali'i, 8.Mose Tuiali'i, 7.Richard McCaw, 6.Kieran Read, 5.Ali Williams, 4.Brad Thorn, 3.Greg Somerville, 2.Corey Flynn, 1.Ben Franks.
Res: 16.Ti'i Paulo, 17.Wyatt Crockett, 18.Michael Paterson, 19.Nasi Manu, 20.Andrew Ellis, 21.Tim Bateman, 22.Sean Maitland.
Brumbies: 15.Julian Huxley, 14.Mark Gerrard, 13.Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12.Gene Fairbanks, 11.Peter Playford, 10.Christian Lealiifano, 9.Joshua Holmes, 8.Stephen Hoiles, 7.George Smith, 6.Jone Tawake, 5.Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4.Alister Campbell, 3.Guy Shepherdson, 2.Huia Edmonds, 1.Nic Henderson.
Res: 16.Saia Faingaa, 17.Salesi Ma'afu, 18.Peter Kimlin, 19.Julian Salvi, 20.Patrick Phibbs, 21.Tyrone Smith, 22.Francis Fainifo.
Reds v Highlanders,
Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane (Friday)
This opening round match-up pits last season's eighth placed side (Highlanders) versus the Queensland 'wooden spooners'.
Quite simply: the Reds were rubbish last year. But this is a new season with a raw new coach Phil Mooney who will attempt to resurrect the Maroons' fortunes by moulding a crop of promising young players around some workhorse veterans into a competitive team.
With all frontline squad members fit, the Reds will field seven forwards with Wallaby experience against the Highlanders; Rodney Blake, Greg Holmes, Stephen Moore, James Horwill, skipper John Roe, David Croft and Hugh McMeniman.
This season will reveal whether 'the Rodzilla's' (tighthead Rodney Blake) ample brawn is a help or a hinderance to his side - the hype has been loud from Queensland scribes, the on-field impact less forceful. At face value the newly implemented experimental law variations may render players of Blake's physique (and lack of mobility) obsolete.
But elsewhere there is undeniable talent in the likes of skilful and abrasive lock James Horwill, athletic blindside Hugh McMeniman, creative pivot Berrick Barnes and bustling wing Digby Ioane. These youthful talents will be counterbalanced by tried and true toilers like fearless hard-nut No.7 David Croft, tireless No.8 John Roe, and the indomitable old wizard at fullback - Chris Latham.
Early whispers were that the Highlanders looked likely cellar dwellers this S14 season after the loss of a host of highly experienced pros such as Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver, and Josh Blackie. Their brightest backline star of many years Nick Evans is also lost to the Southern cause after returning home to don an Auckland jersey in 2008.
Talented but injury prone young lock James Ryan is still absent and rangy looseforward Craig Newby is sidelined with injury.
But the Highlanders have shown strong preseason form underlined by a precious, surprise, trial match win over the Blues 42-21 in Dunedin last week. They have imposing front row bulk of their own in the shape of powerful Southland prop loosehead prop Jamie Mackintosh and Hawke's Bay enforcer Clint Newland at tighthead.
The Southern men have excellent lineout options with talented Manawatu lock-come-No.6 Hayden Triggs backing up former All Black lock Tom Donnelly and raw young Canterbury powerhouse Isaac Ross ready to hone his talents.
The Highlanders backline has a raw and enigmatic quality about it. Niva Ta'auso, Paul Williams and Lucky Mulipola have much to prove after mediocre performances in previous campaigns.
Hard hitting Inside centre Johnny Leota has been a standout for Manawatu in ANZC and Fetu'u Vainikolo is an intriguing prospect.
Prediction: Highlanders by 7 or less.
Highlanders: 15.Paul Williams, 14.Lucky Mulipola, 13.Niva Ta'auso, 12.Johnny Leota, 11.Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10.Daniel Bowden, 9.Jimmy Cowan, 8.Steven Setephano, 7.Alando Soakai, 6.Hayden Triggs, 5.Tom Donnelly, 4.Isaac Ross, 3.Clint Newland, 2.Jason Macdonald (capt), 1.Jamie Mackintosh.
Res: 16.David Hall, 17.Chris King, 18.Adam Thomson, 19.Tim Boys, 20.Toby Morland, 21.Mike Delany, 22.Brett Mather.
Reds: 15.Chris Latham, 14.Digby Ioane, 13.Morgan Turinui, 12.Chris Siale, 11.Clinton Schifcofske, 10.Berrick Barnes, 9.Sam Cordingley, 8.John Roe (capt), 7.David Croft, 6.Hugh McMeniman, 5.James Horwill, 4.Van Humphries, 3.Rodney Blake, 2.Stephen Moore, 1.Greg Holmes.
Res: 16.Sean Hardman, 17.Dayna Edwards, 18.Ed O'Donoghue, 19.Leroy Houston, 20.Will Genia, 21.Andrew Walker, 22.Peter Hynes.
Sharks v Western Force,
ABSA Stadium in Durban (Saturday)
This home opener for the 2008 defending champions poses a real potential banana skin fixture for the Sharks.
Western Australia's Force were the biggest improvers of 2007 after a steep learning curve debut season in 2006, finishing sixth last season and taking away wins over the Stormers and Bulls in South Africa.
The Force is one Australian franchise that has had no reason to fear travelling to the Republic, they have had by far the best results over two season of any of the Australian franchises (or teams full stop).
There are few surprises in a Sharks line-up that boasts fourteen players who were in the match day 22 for the all-South African final last year. The biggest talking point is the will he, won't he, status of the Shark's French international signing, the mercurial and injury prone Frederic Michalak.
At this stage he appears unlikely to play as he nurses a calf complaint. If Michalak is unavailable he will be well covered by prodigiously talented 19-year-old Springbok utility back Francois Steyn - a young man with a howitzer for a right foot.
The Sharks will bring to the field the same mobile, bruising and powerful forward pack they did last season and again boast a solid and creative backline that loves to feed off counterattacking opportunities and will take inspiration from one of the two most dangerous running halfbacks (alongside Fourie du Preez of the Bulls) in world rugby - Ruan Pienaar.
Force coach John Mitchell will be disappointed with the distracting off-field furore that knuckle headed No.9 Matt Henjak has stirred up yet again, but he has been able to pick a starting XV from a settled and, reportedly, thoroughly prepared squad. Fourteen of the Forces' starting XV were regularly involved with S14 action last season for the Western Australians, debut winger Nick Cummins being the only exception.
The twenty-year-old Cummins has a solid rugby resume to boast of with an impressive representative IRB Sevens season behind him during which he was top Australian try scorer. In the loose forwards veteran Scott Fava takes on a new role at blindside flanker while utility loosie Richard Brown will have to step up in the unfamiliar No.8 jersey.
The Force will look to take full advantage of the new E.L.Vs with their mobile forward pack and electric backline appearing well equipped to take full advantage of the sped-up game. At setpiece time the Sharks look to have a clear advantage but it also appears that the E.L.Vs will ensure that setpiece domination will have a lesser impact on the results of games this season.
This fixture will provide an particularly interesting reflection on the impact the new rules will have on individual teams and keep a close eye on playmaker Matt Giteau, he is always a potential matchwinner.
Prediction: Force by 7 or less.
Sharks: 15.Francois Steyn/Stefan Terblanche, 14.Henno Mentz, 13.Waylon Murray, 12.Bradley Barritt, 11.JP Pietersen, 10.Frederic Michalak/Francois Steyn, 9.Ruan Pienaar, 8.Ryan Kankowski, 7.AJ Venter, 6.Jacques Botes, 5.Johann Muller (capt), 4.Johan Ackermann, 3.BJ Botha, 2.Bismarck du Plessis, 1.Beast Mtawarira.
Res : 16.Craig Burden, 17.Kees Lensing, 18.Jannie du Plessis, 19.Jean Deysel/Albert van den Berg, 20.Rory Kockott, 21.Adrian Jacobs, 22.Stefan Terblanche.
Western Force: 15.Cameron Shepherd, 14.Nick Cummins, 13.Ryan Cross, 12.Scott Staniforth, 11.Drew Mitchell, 10.Matt Giteau, 9.Matt Henjak, 8.Richard Brown, 7.David Pocock, 6.Scott Fava, 5.Nathan Sharpe (capt), 4.David Pusey, 3.AJ Whalley, 2.Tai McIsaac, 1.Gareth Hardy.
Res: 16.Luke Holmes, 17.Troy Takiari, 18.Sitaleki Timani, 19.Matt Hodgson, 20.James Stannard, 21.Scott Daruda 22.Josh Tatupu.
Blues v Chiefs,
Eden Park in Auckland (Saturday)
A cracking derby clash between the competition's second (Blues) and fourth (Chiefs) favourites, two great attacking teams.
The Blues appear to have the one key ingredient they lacked in 2007 - a dominant playmaker - after securing All Blacks five-eighth Nick Evans but have lost lineout king Ali Williams.
The Chiefs need to avoid their traditionally slow start to the season and appear to have lost All Blacks halfback Brendon Leonard to injury for this match. However they have extreme pace and brilliance out wide in Mils Muliaina, Sosene Anesi and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
Prediction: Chiefs by 8 or less
Waratahs v Hurricanes,
Sydney Football Stadium (Saturday)
Despite finishing second last in an injury marred 2007, the Waratahs are still third favourites for the title this year.
They're certainly desperate but also carry the burden of the health of Australian rugby. But they're promising the passes will stick in 2008 - and that tryscorers Lote Tuqiri and Timana Tahu will actually get over the line.
A fit Dan Vickerman will boost their cause immensely with his authoritative forward play. Off-load kings the Hurricanes showed how much they love the new rules in last week's trial demolition of the Brumbies. They boast the havoc-wreaking backrow of captain Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe and Jerry Collins and will be a stern test of whether the Tahs have genuinely turned the corner.
Prediction: Waratahs by 5 or less
Stormers v Bulls,
Newlands Stadium in Cape Town (Sunday)
What to expect from last year's champions the Bulls after major off-season losses in coach Heyneke Meyer and captain Victor Matfield? New coach Frans Ludeke didn't have much joy with the
Still any team with champion half Fourie DuPreez, try-machine Bryan Habana and classy playmaker Derick Hougaard is a threat. The usually inconsistent Stormers could be improvers under smart new coach Rassie Erasmus.
They're likely to rely on the aggression of Shalk Burger and creativity of Luke Watson in the backrow for inspiration. Bulls should be too strong.
Prediction: Bulls by 10
Cheetahs v Lions,
Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein (Sunday)
Two early contenders for the wooden spoon, although the same was true last year and Australian sides ended up filling the bottom two places.
The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs' trademark brawn has been slimmed with the exit of props Os du Randt and Ollie le Roux while pointscoring machine Willem de Waal has headed to France.
Perennial strugglers the Lions go into this one without their two biggest names, five-eighth Andre Pretorius and Jaque Fourie and the Jo'burg side are still searching for their first ever Super rugby win over a South African franchise.
Prediction: Cheetahs by 5 or less