By MARC HINTON - Sunday Star Times
Did you get the memo? The one that went out pleading, nay demanding, that players, coaches, referees and administrators all do their bit to make southern hemisphere rugby's flagship competition more about the super, and less the stupor.
It's been all the talk in the pre-season. The quest for zest. Need for speed. Bang to go with the buck. Call it what you will, rugby's rulers in this part of the world have recognised that they have an issue with a wavering public, not to mention a stop-start game, and damned if they're not going to do something about it.
Of course there's only so much the suits sitting in their ivory towers in Wellington, Sydney and Johannesburg can do. They can huff and puff, draft memos, gather forums and institute emergency pow-wows until their expense accounts run dry. They can even tinker with the laws' intent – though not the laws themselves, mind – to see if they can remove some of the negativity that's abounded in recent times. And good on 'em for trying. Let's face it, the last thing rugby needs as it looks to find its way back into the public's consciousness is another series of matches like last November's "autumn" tests in the north. With the exception of the All Blacks' flourishing signoff in Marseille, these contests flowed like mud and were about as interesting as a political manifesto.
So it's heartening to see attempts being made to liven things up a little. Coaches, players and refs have all been strongly "urged" to make the Super 14 game a fan-friendly one.
In other words, not your average Six Nations encounter.
And the whistle-blowers, apparently, are going to play their part by taking a distinct emphasis aimed at making the game easier on the eye. It's hoped there will be fewer scrum resets, more continuity for the attacking team at the breakdown, a better chance for kick receivers to launch counter-attacks (and thus less of that awful aerial ping-pong) and also a tidy up the rolling maul to prevent obstruction.
It all sounds promising. But as Richie McCaw noted this week, there's another factor in the equation. Two teams will be going out to win a game of rugby. And when push comes to shove, all the goodwill and intent in the world will go out the window in the name of those all-important four points.
"Teams are going out there to win and are going to figure out ways to do it," noted McCaw, who will miss the first two or three weeks of the competition while he gets himself ready for another sapping year. "They're not going to go out with the first thing in mind to play attractive rugby."
However, McCaw notes the New Zealand way is, when possible, to win by creating space and moving the ball, and he expects that to again be a staple of the five Kiwi sides. "At times it's not possible and you've got to have other things up your sleeve. But I know all the teams around New Zealand want to play like that."
McCaw also likes the sound of the new breakdown emphasis and figures, rightly, that it can only be a good thing if the attacking team is given a fair chance to retain hard-earned ball, and by doing so create the flow that fans want to see.
So far so good, then. Sounds like everyone's on the same page and ready for some expansive rugby. Well, maybe not the Bulls, but then again they play their suffocating, counter-strike stuff so damn well, it can be fun to watch anyway.
BUT WHAT of the footy? What can we expect, especially from a New Zealand perspective?
Well, I'm going to go out on a limb (not!) and predict an eighth title for the Crusaders. Put it this way, every season since their first triumph in 1998, when they haven't been in a final, they've come back and won it the following year.
But it's not statistics or trends that persuade me there will be another Kiwi victory to savour. It's Dan Carter. With him back in the driver's seat, the Crusaders have all the pieces of the puzzle back in place.
They've also made two key backline additions in Zac Guildford and Robert Fruean, and if ever a couple of young diamonds look like being polished by the famed Crusaders system it's these two. Guildford will provide much-needed finishing power out wide and Fruean the midfield crunch.
The Crusaders are also full of top performers who are all a year older, and better, headed by that impressive loose forward Kieran Read.
To him you can add the Franks brothers, Wyatt Crockett, Isaac Ross, Ryan Crotty, Tim Bateman and Colin Slade. Throw in Thomas Waldrom's X-factor, Brad Thorn's drive and Chris Jack's return and you have, almost, the perfect storm.
Only McCaw's early absence and a worrying injury to Corey Flynn look like causing any angst in title town.
With apologies to the Chiefs, I see the Hurricanes as New Zealand's other semifinalists. A heap of experience, great depth and class acts in key positions should ensure Colin Cooper goes out on a positive note. But really anything less than a first title will not be good enough for a side that's been to the semis or better five times the last seven years.
The Chiefs will be there or thereabouts again, but I just wonder if they've got any better than last season when they made that wonderful run to the final? Again Ian Foster will look to over-achieve with his pack and dazzle with an array of backline whizzes (though the early absence of Mils Muliaina and Lelia Masaga doesn't help).
The Blues have the talent to contend, but it's hard to escape the feeling that the loss of Ali Williams for the season is an early setback from which they'll struggle to recover; while the Highlanders have a tight group, more backline firepower than the past and are apparently as fit as they've been. For all that it's hard to see them stringing the big wins together to get into the semifinal picture.
Elsewhere? The NSW Waratahs and ACT Brumbies both upgraded significantly, and must be legit contenders, while over in the republic the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks are all worthy of consideration. Of course only one team ends it all with a smile, and this year it's the Crusaders. And, frankly, for the good folk of Christchurch that will be all the entertainment they require.