By MARC HINTON
Sunday, 10 February 2008
No pressure, fellas. You've got a wavering, wilting public to win over, a whole bunch of new rules to master, five desperate accountants to appease, a broadcaster that's still to unfurl the frown and, of course, your own promising careers to propel.
Oh, and some major credibility to claw back for New Zealand rugby. Yeah, no pressure at all.
Welcome to the 2008 Super 14, a competition with plenty riding on it for New Zealand's five franchises as they look to play their part in putting the feel-good factor back into the game this country calls its own.
In fact, New Zealand's leading rugby players will not be asked to just play Super rugby over the next few months, but Supermen as well. Swoop in and save the day for the game in distress.
It may be using poetic licence to suggest there's a rescue mission to perform, or even a game in need of saving, but undoubtedly the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders have some ground to make up, on and off the field. Much of it is as a result of the self-inflicted wounds from 2007 where things worked out for New Zealand rugby about as well as it did for the guy planning the New England Patriots' post-Super Bowl party.
Reconditioning and rotation a couple of cursed policies that cost New Zealand the world cup but not the All Blacks coach his job have left the game counting the fallout of a 2007 Super 14 season pretty much torpedoed, even though the Crusaders and Blues battled gamely enough to make it as far as the semifinals.
With the guts of the All Blacks squad sitting out the first half of the competition, it was a muddled sort of a year where, at various times, it was hard to tell whether some franchises were coming or going.
In the end no one not even those metronomic Crusaders got a handle on the peculiar demands of a season where Graham Henry's shadow cast a pall over New Zealand's collective challenge.
The Blues started like rockets but couldn't get their heads around how best to assimilate the late brigade; the Crusaders hung tough but lacked firepower when their big guns misfired; the Hurricanes sorely missed their influential All Blacks forwards and coughed and spluttered through a poor campaign; the unlucky Chiefs didn't win a match until week seven but were probably the best team in the competition by the end of it when they flew home to finish just shy of a playoff spot. And the Highlanders? Well, it's a long time since they've given anyone sleepless nights.
All of which wouldn't have been so bad had the All Blacks gone on and given the world cup the shake that was promised.
Instead, New Zealand's rugby fans were asked to sacrifice their Super 14 season for a pathetic, worst ever, quarter-final exit by the All Blacks. What's more, the coaching triumvirate who presided over the whole sorry affair were hastily rubber-stamped back into their jobs.
Depending on your views, there may or may not be merits in the peculiar lack of accountability in the NZRU's reappointment process. But one thing is clear: large sections of New Zealand's rugby public are feeling equal parts disenfranchised and disenchanted.
The same could be said of the broadcasters (remember them, the blokes who sign that fat cheque each year?) who regarded the reconditioning programme with all the enthusiasm of a turkey counting down to Christmas. With viewing numbers dropping like the jaws of New Zealanders in Cardiff last October, it's fair to say there's some ground to regain.
Which brings us to this year. New season, new rules, a whole swag of new players, and plenty of new hope.
Let's start with the eight (out of the IRB's 11) new Experimental Law Variations that Sanzar have deigned to bring in. Essentially, they're designed to speed up the game, make it easier to follow and referee and to give attackers a fraction better than a starter's chance against those iron-willed defensive lines that prevail these days.
The jury is out on just what sort of a game these "variations" will produce, but the hope is that eventually after a bedding-in period it'll be one that's easier on the eye.
It's also a Super 14 with some pretty compelling storylines, starting with the fact that it is the ninth and final campaign as head coach of the Crusaders for the incomparable Robbie Deans. Just to add some spice to the whole shebang, he sidles off across the Tasman at the end of it to take charge of the Wallabies (against the All Blacks, for those who haven't been paying attention).
So it's going to be all eyes on the Crusaders in 2008 to see if a) Deans can add a fifth title to bring the curtain down on his dynasty, b) if he's distracted at all by the prospect of having to come up with a Wallabies front row at some stage, and c) just how much co-operation he gives to the man who beat him out of the All Blacks job. It's odious, at best, to suggest that a man with Deans' integrity and record (in eight campaigns under him the Crusaders have missed the semis just once and appeared in six finals) will give anything but his professional best, though it's said the NZRU will be watching closely just to make sure.
The Crusaders have lost some key figures (Chris Jack, Aaron Mauger and Rico Gear to name but three), but have added Ali Williams, brought back Brad Thorn and will probably look to play both Dan Carter and Stephen Brett in the five-eighths. It will also be a key campaign for All Blacks superstars Richie McCaw and Carter whose stellar reputations took a dent in 2007.
The Blues will fancy their chances of going a stage further than their semifinal appearance of 2007, and with Nick Evans in to give them some much-needed composure and direction at first-five they look a good chance of doing so. David Nucifora's outfit has lost some big names (Doug Howlett, Sam Tuitupou, Williams and a swag of experienced old heads) but remain chock-full of game-breakers. Isaia Toeava seems set to step into the No12 jersey (a move with All Black connotations) with the versatile Isa Nacewa slipping back to fullback.
The Chiefs and Hurricanes both look capable of challenging for the semifinals as well.
It will be about hitting the ground running for Ian Foster's Chiefs, who have had shocking starts the last two years and paid dearly for being left in the blocks. They have two future stars in Richard Kahui and Liam Messam, others with plenty to prove in Jono Gibbes, Tom Willis and Sione Lauaki and a backline with more gas than BP and Shell put together. With some overdue luck on the injury front, they're a dark horse in the run to the title.
Colin Cooper's Hurricanes have a wave of new, young faces, but it's the old firm of Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo and co who will lead the way for them again. With Jason Eaton back from long-term injury to shore up the second row and Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu angry enough to do some damage, they should again be tough nuts to crack.
Which leaves the Highlanders a group of misfits, castoffs and a hard core of good old southern boys. No one's expecting much from this group coached by rookie Glenn Moore but you get the sense that they're keen to prove a few people wrong in 2008. It will be a big ask, given the scratch nature of their group and the TAB gives them no chance at a generous $100 for the title.
Then again, a fairytale team could be just what this competition needs.
Sky's promotional material for the season features the slogan "Feeling Good". Perhaps that's wishful thinking but let's face it, it can't feel any worse than 2007.
Marc Hinton is the co-editor of rugbyheaven.co.nz
MOVING ON: Richie McCaw will have plenty to prove with the Crusaders in this year's Super 14 after a 2007 that most New Zealand rugby fans are looking to forget.