Saturday, February 07, 2009

Crusaders top of the list-again
Friday, 06 February 2009
Another season, another opportunity to make bold predictions that leave nothing but egg on your face.Nonetheless, The Press has bravely run its rule over the Super 14 teams in the hope of sorting the wheat from the chaff. All that we can be certain of is that one team will win this competition and history tells us the Crusaders have a better chance than most.
Here's how they rate:
* Crusaders
There are strong arguments against the Crusaders doing it again, what with the talent that has departed since last year's final, both on and off the paddock. Ask yourself how many franchises could absorb the loss of Robbie Deans, Dan Carter, Mose Tuiali'i et al. But if any outfit can, it is this one.
After all, when you have Richie McCaw, you have to be favourites every time you take the paddock.
Predicted finish: 1st.
* Sharks
Worthy semifinalists a year ago, the Sharks have enlisted none other than rugby league legend Andrew Johns to assist in their pre- season activities. Coach John Plumtree raved about "Joey's" input and it will be interesting to see if he provides the missing ingredient.
Three finals for three runners-up medals - this could be the year to break the duck.
Predicted finish: 2nd.
* Hurricanes
Another team which, the law of averages suggests, must win this competition eventually. Their forwards lack a bit of grunt and first five- eighth looks a three-way lottery between Piri Weepu, Willie Ripia and Daniel Kirkpatrick, but with 12 All Blacks in the squad, the Hurricanes theoretically boast plenty of quality.
A solid semifinal bet.
Predicted finish: 3rd.
* Bulls
By his own admission, Bulls coach Frans Ludeke was completely unprepared for life under the ELVs in 2008. Wounded by a poor defence of the title they won in 2007, the Bulls have put plenty of work into their conditioning this time around.
Predicted finish: 4th.
* Waratahs
Did extremely well to make last year's final, in the face of internal strife when coach Ewen McKenzie was told mid-season his contract would not be renewed. Watch out for Kurtley Beale and Timana Tahu in the backs.
Predicted finish: 5th
* Blues
Like the Waratahs, starting with a clean slate under a new coach. Pat Lam has done well with many of these players at domestic level and it will be fascinating to see if he can turn the once great franchise around.
The lack of a real general in the No 10 jersey may hurt them, with Jimmy Gopperth and Tasesa Lavea both erratic at times.
Predicted finish: 6th.
* Chiefs
Ian Foster seems to be well regarded in national coaching circles but his results with the Chiefs have been consistently underwhelming. Again, he has decent cattle at his disposal this season, players who ought to be capable of making semifinals.
They will be good to watch when they win, but may ultimately frustrate their loyal fans once again.
Predicted finish: 7th.
* Western Force
Things are a bit shambolic in Perth right now, but the Force players can at least take heart from what the Waratahs achieved last year in spite of a degree of antipathy between themselves and coach Ewen McKenzie.
Coach John Mitchell has an outstanding backline, fairly capable forwards and loyal fans at Subiaco Oval.
Predicted finish: 8th.
* Stormers
They possess one of the canniest rugby players in warhorse A J Venter. Plugging away at lock these days, he is again complemented by Schalk Burger in a useful pack. In Jean de Villiers, Conrad Jantjes and Percy Montgomery there is experience and ability in the backs. Somehow they just have not put the results together on a consistent basis.
Predicted finish: 9th.
* Brumbies
Once the Crusaders' greatest foe, an inability to hang on to successful players still appears to be hurting the Brumbies. The Gregans and Larkhams have long gone, but the grooming of their heirs continues to take time. It is nice to see wing Clyde Rathbone back after two years out with injury. In general, though, this team still looks a year or two off reaching their potential.
Predicted finish: 10th.
* Highlanders
No-one would have predicted Hawkes Bay would do so well after being elevated to Air New Zealand Cup footy, so it could hardly be a surprise if the same players fired for the Highlanders. The loss of lock Tom Donnelly with a thumb injury is a big blow.
Predicted finish: 12th.
* Cheetahs
A big team, they will provide visiting teams with the odd headache. They are light on players with Springbok experience and it is hard to see them winning too often in New Zealand or even Australia.
Predicted finish: 13th.
* Lions
The franchise's website claims coach Eugene "Loffie" Eloff "never ceases to amaze with his ability to motivate and inspire his team to go from strength to strength." Now in his third year at the helm, Eloff will have to be at his absolute best to return real pride to the Lions.
Predicted finish: 14th.


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