Monday, March 01, 2010

Which NZ sides will kick on in Super 14?

This was more like it. Five games, five New Zealand wins and the Super 14 suddenly has a golden Kiwi glow about it after the third round of action.
Heck, even the Highlanders found a way to shrug off the dodgy decisions that always seem to go against them and get up for a morale-boosting victory in South Africa.

From a Kiwi perspective, week three of the Super 14 was a mixture of the good and the great, with the Highlanders and Blues both gaining big road wins (against the Cheetahs and Reds, respectively), the Crusaders getting things well and truly back on track in Christchurch, the Hurricanes outgunning the Lions in the capital and those Chiefs completing a remarkable sweep of their long-distance tour with a clinical display against the freefalling Force.

It was actually a TMO's fair suck of the sav away from being a perfect round for the Kiwi teams, with the Highlanders the only one of the quintet not to pick up a bonus point - though quite how the fourth official in Bloem ruled out what looked a legit late try to Adam Thomson, when he earlier gave two more dubious ones in the Cheetahs' favour, was mystifying.

It was probably just fortunate for the sanity of Highlanders coach Glenn Moore that the late home-town call cost his side only the bonus point, and not the other four.

Anyway, a good weekend for the New Zealand sides. But what does it all mean? Who's making headway, and who's just flattering to deceive?
Well, it's still hard to look past Ian Foster's Chiefs for the New Zealand side setting the pace after the first three rounds of the new season.

The Chiefs and Canes, alongside South Africa's Bulls, are the only teams to keep their perfect records intact, having gone three-from-three with varying degrees of comfort.
All three were semifinalists last year, and based on what we've seen in the early going so far all three look like they're on the right path to another crack at post-season glory in 2010.

There's a school of thought out there that the Chiefs have had three "soft" games and that they've yet to be truly tested. And it's true that the three teams they've knocked off (the Sharks, Lions and Force respectively) have so far managed the same number of wins as the All Blacks have World Cups since 1987.

But the reality is the Chiefs have won three tricky road games, started the season 3-0 despite not having woken up in their own country since the competition began and now have seven of their remaining 10 matches at home. Not a bad place to be as they look to shake off the jet-lag this week.

What's more they've done so with an array of defections, including injuries to both their first-choice locks (Kevin O'Neill and Craig Clarke), an injury and then suspension to their best loose forward (Sione Lauaki), injuries to their best two wingers (Lelia Masaga and now Sitiveni Sivivatu) and the self-imposed absence of their inspirational leader Mils Muliaina.

So, whatever way you look at it, this has been a meritorious opening for the Chiefs, and especially their coach Ian Foster who's fast developing a reputation as a mentor who is on top of his game and in tune with his players.

Sure, there have been some scratchy moments, especially in Johannesburg when they leaked all those points in their 72-65 game of hoops against the Lions, but on the other side of the coin they found a way to win a tight one in Durban, scored nine tries at Ellis Park and did what they had to in Perth to keep things on track.

There's also an enviable depth developing in this Chiefs side which seems able to lose key men and not miss a beat on the field. Pretty much everyone who's been asked to step in - and the likes of Culum Retallick, Tim Nanai-Williams, Romana Graham, Colin Bourke, Jackson Willison, Nathan White and Jarrad Hoeata are not exactly household names - has done so efficiently and effectively.

Plus, they've got a first five who's on top of his game, with Stephen Donald exhibiting a calmness and assurance that hasn't always been a hallmark of his game. He's also slotting goals with Cater-esque accuracy.

Soon their absent frontliners will return and then Foster will have at his disposal the chief characteristic of any side with championship aspirations - depth in spades. Injuries are inevitable in rugby at this level, it's how you're equipped to cover for them that's important.
Right now the Chiefs look as good as anyone on that front.

The Hurricanes would also be fairly satisfied that they've matched the Chiefs with 14 of a possible 15 points from the first three rounds, even if you get a suspicion they have yet to go anywhere near their potential.

That's a good sign. Find ways to get up even when you're not playing well, eventually play your way into form and then see how easy it gets when winning is such a habit. That's pretty much how the Crusaders have won seven titles and made 11 of the last 12 playoffs.

Like the Chiefs, the Canes are going to find their depth tested this week, with lock Jason Eaton gone for the rest of the season and key backs Conrad Smith and Tamati Ellison missing from at least the first of their next three games in South Africa. They're also without wing Hosea Gear for this trip.

So they're going to have to put out a patched-up backline against the Cheetahs and hope big Cantab James Broadhurst can continue his promising start in the second row. In other words it's time to show they're a squad, not a team.
The Crusaders also demonstrated that Brisbane was but a blip on the graph when they returned to winning form in emphatic fashion against the Sharks at AMI Stadium.

With Richie McCaw due back to starting duty this week, newcomer Zac Guildford adding some much-needed X-factor out wide and some heavy-hitters still lurking on the sidelines, the Crusaders are well-placed to kick on to another of those typical seasons of theirs that end with something silver being lifted above their heads.

Though they will be tested this weekend when they host a Blues side which played its best rugby of the season in difficult conditions at Ballymore on Saturday night. It, er, pelted down all game, but Pat Lam's side was still good enough to score four tries and secure a quality win against a competitive Reds side.

Following their more pragmatic effort in Dunedin, the Blues now have some momentum and confidence that they'll need against a Crusaders outfit that looks like it has had its one bad game for the year.

Lam will be tested as he works out a game-plan to unsettle the Crusaders, but with his new halfback Alby Mathewson in rich form and Rene Ranger coming of age at this level, he at least has a side with the belief to give it a go in Christchurch.

Which leaves the Highlanders. Never was a win more deserved than their 31-24 success against the Cheetahs, and this week their challenge is to back it up and inflict a second straight home defeat on the Stormers.

The Highlander forwards still haven't hit their straps, and they may need to in Cape Town. But in Adam Thomson they have a class act in their loose trio and no one leads a side with more passion and persuasion than the irrepressible Jimmy Cowan. Plus in Michael Hobbs, with four tries already, they have one of the early finds of the season.

The suspicion is the Highlanders are destined for also-ran status, but it just may be that South Africa is the right destination for them right now. As the Chiefs showed, it's not a bad place to be to get things heading in the right direction.

Week 4 Super 14 draw: Friday: Chiefs v Queensland Reds, Hamilton, 7.35pm; ACT Brumbies v Lions, Canberra, 9.40pm. Saturday: Crusaders v Blues, Christchurch, 7.35pm; NSW Waratahs v Sharks, Sydney, 9.40pm. Sunday: Stormers v Highlanders, Cape Town, 4.05am; Cheetahs v Hurricanes, Bloemfontein, 6.10am. Byes: Bulls, Western Force.

No comments: