Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rugby: Super 14 - turning flagging fortunes around

Saturday Jan 9, 2010

Over the next couple of weeks the extra helping of sherry-laced trifle and the brandy snaps will be instantly regretted as the Super 14 players drift back to their franchises for gruelling pre-season training.

With the possible exception of sanguine Chiefs' coach Ian Foster, none of the coaches would have been able to fully relax over the festive season either.

Having slotted a few draft choices into their squads they now have to find a way of restoring pride in New Zealand franchises that was lost last season - all done against the Sanzar blueprint of "positive rugby" they have signed up to (if you are thinking of running a sweepstake as to how long it will take a couple of the South African sides to renege on that promise we would suggest round three would be prudent).

Last season was not a great one for New Zealand teams, leaving five pertinent questions to be answered over the off-season.

How will they address their issues at playmaker?
Since the departure of Carlos Spencer in 2005 the Blues have been weak at first five-eighths. In 2009 that was never more evident and the struggling franchise started to be linked with every five-eighths from Jonny Wilkinson to Daniel Carter to Juan Martin Hernandez, though coach Pat Lam rather strangely claimed he wouldn't recognise Hernandez if he was standing in front of him (which makes you wonder whether such ignorance should be rewarded with a head coach position at a major professional rugby side).

In the end Lam settled on the gifted Stephen Brett who was effectively told by All Blacks coach Graham Henry that if he had international aspirations he needed to come out from under the cosy blanket provided to him by both Carter and the Crusaders. After a protracted process Lam got his man in the draft.

Having already secured the signature of Wellington's Alby Mathewson, the Blues' two problem positions started to look less, well, problematic.

It is not fait accompli that these two will turn the franchise's fortunes around. Mathewson is not the finished product by any means, though he is snappy and combative, and although Brett has a seemingly limitless range of skills, he can tend towards the flaky. He has also been exposed on defence at times.

If he is injured, another import, Wellington's Daniel Kirkpatrick will take over and there has been precious little so far to suggest he is ready to guide a Super 14 team around the paddock.
Still, the Blues have done a nice job of addressing their biggest issue.

Do they have the quality to go one step further?
They obviously think they do because Foster brought back 20 of his squad from 2009 and dipped into the draft just once, bringing in Taranaki's raw-boned utility loose forward Jarrad Hoeata.

The experienced and often brilliant Mils Muliaina will not make the tricky trip to South Africa and Perth that frames the Chiefs' first three games and there is a danger he could be slotting back into a team that finds itself playing catch-up by the time they face the Reds at home in round four.

When he takes his rightful place as custodian, the backline looks awesome (if fit) with Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga on the wings, Richard Kahui and Callum Bruce in the midfield, All Blacks Stephen Donald and Mike Delany fighting for the No10 jersey and Brendon Leonard providing the service at halfback.

That backline is complemented by skilful and combative loose forwards in Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Sione Lauaki, Luke Braid and Colin Bourke.
The only question is whether the tight five can deliver the platform for them to earn their first title.
Without being a doomsayer, the suspicion is they are one or two quality slabs of meat shy of the ideal squad.

What can they do to get the most out of their talented squad?
How about this for radical - announce well ahead of time that this will be Colin Cooper's last year as coach.

Not suggesting they would be so cynical to stage manage this to tap into the well of emotion that comes with the departure of a long-serving and popular mentor for the entire season ... but then again.

They would do well to find something that will keep this team on edge for the duration because time and again the Hurricanes can look the best team on the planet for a few weeks, and utterly sterile at others.

This would not be so bad if they got their timing right, but their virility seems to dissipate in the later rounds and the playoffs (when they make it).

A few valedictory-like speeches from Cooper should ensure that this is not the case in 2010. Another thing that should help their case - the importation of a few Cantabrians.
Feisty halfback Tyson Keats, along with locks Michael Paterson and James Broadhurst, join the Hurricanes and should add a bit of steel to the squad.

Can they win without star duo Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw?
Coach Todd Blackadder was probably hoping he would not have to address that question for quite some time after the Crusaders fended off interest from up north to keep hold of Carter in 2010.

He was away on "sabbatical" with Perpignan last season, though that came to a painful and premature end when he injured his Achilles tendon.

This time, however, Blackadder will have both in his squad, though McCaw has been pegged to miss the first month as he rests up following a draining 2009.

McCaw might be every bit as good and dominant in his position as Carter is, but Blackadder will feel more comfortable about plugging the gap left by McCaw's industry and brilliance than he would trying to replace the No10's transcendent skills.

George Whitelock is a low-to-the-ground seven who has tasted international rugby, albeit briefly.
It is McCaw's leadership and ability to influence a game that Blackadder is going to have to work hardest on replacing.

With 12 other All Blacks in the squad, including the returning Chris Jack, this should not be a massive issue but you never know.

In the Crusaders' favour is the fact they have a fairly "soft" start to the championship, no doubt a reason why Blackadder was more than happy to let McCaw have February off, with them hosting the Highlanders and Sharks and travelling to Brisbane for the Reds.

Can they remain relevant?
These are troubled times at Otago.

Southland has leap-frogged Otago as the dominant team within the Highlanders' boundaries and the Otago Rugby Football Union shot the remains of its feet off by looking past David Latta, a man who had bled blue and gold and who could stir up some healthy parochialism, in favour of hiring slick Australian Phil Mooney.

It wouldn't be so bad for Dunedinites if the Highlanders looked half-pie competitive but it has to be said they look one or two injuries away from ordinary.

If they can keep their first XV on the field for the majority of the Super 14 they might be okay ... might. Jimmy Cowan gives them leadership at halfback and outside him sit future star Robbie Robinson, the promising Israel Dagg and Jayden Hayward, and new All Black Ben Smith.

They have some talent in the forwards too, with props Jamie Mackintosh and Clint Newland, locks Tom Donnelly and Josh Bekhuis and loosie Adam Thomson.

Still, they're thin on the ground compared to the country's other four squads and you can hardly blame Mackintosh and Cowan for wanting out.

At the moment their biggest hope of remaining relevant could hinge on the bricks and mortar being laid at the new stadium at the north end of the city.
A building might be a strange thing to pin your hopes on, but it could regenerate a bit of interest in the teams that will occupy it.
Another below par season certainly won't.

By Dylan Cleaver

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