Thursday, March 03, 2011

5 rugby questions that need answers

OPINION: Questions, questions, questions. Here are five big ones to ponder from a New Zealand perspective as we head into week three of the new Super Rugby season.

Which way will the Crusaders go in the wake of the devastating earthquake that has torn apart their home town?

Seriously, this is big folks, and it's no stretch to say that the Crusaders' season could be at the crossroads, even this early in the piece.

The worrying thing is it's hard to say which path the storied southern franchise will take. The easy answer would be to say they'll gather their forces and come out firing as they play to put smiles on the faces of their beleaguered fans.

But, gee, this is an event on a scale that even the Crusaders could struggle with. I don't think it's an automatic that they'll come out bigger, better and bolder from the experience of seeing so much tragedy and destruction on their own back doorsteps.

Some things make you stronger. But this? The hope is an already close and spirited band of men ride the emotions of a harrowing time and go on to some special things.
But let's deal with a few realities. Every Crusaders player has been affected by this quake in some form or other.

Many have had property badly damaged, all have family and friends who have had their lives literally torn apart. People have died, hundreds of them, and everyone who calls Christchurch home has felt these losses terribly.
As good a coach as Todd Blackadder is and as much quality as they have through their lineup, the Crusaders are human. Tragedy takes a toll.

Add in that they've been forced to move the game to Nelson and that a pretty useful Waratahs outfit comes to town on the back of two confidence-boosting wins to open the new season, and this is a tough old match for the 'Saders.

Yes, Sonny Bill Williams will be there forming that giant midfield combination with Robbie Fruean that promises so much, and, yes, we all know these Crusaders are staunch men who respond well in a crisis.
But they'll be forgiven if they're not at their best Friday night.

This match could give us a good indication of how this season plays out for the Red and Blacks. A win would be a great rallying point for a side who know better than anyone that this is just footy..

Which Blues team will show up this week?

The good one, of course. It's their turn.

Having excited the first week, and exasperated the next, surely no one would be surprised to see the Blues break out again in Jo'burg and show what an effective and exciting team they can be when they take care of the detail.

They may just have to be up near their best too against John Mitchell's Lions who have been desperately unlucky to lose their first two matches. There looks to be a newfound belief and resilience in the men from Johannesburg this year, and they'll be eyeing this as a winnable match,

But from a Blues perspective they simply have to bounce back. Pat Lam has vowed that the inconsistencies of campaigns past will be left behind, but early evidence suggests otherwise. It's statement time for this side. Holding on to the ball will help.

Have the Chiefs forgotten how to win?

It looks like it, after an oh-and-two start to the new season. Having spotted the Brumbies too much of a start in week one, bumbling away three tries in the process, they were then run down by a much more urgent Highlanders outfit in the second half in Dunedin.

Ian Foster's men look like a crew searching for an identity, and not coming up with any answers.
This Chiefs side won just one of their last eight games in 2010 (most of those at home where they were woeful) and things are already starting to look just a little urgent as they return to Waikato Stadium to face new chums the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday night.

Having said that, the Rebels look prime for the plucking. Coming off the emotional high of their first win last weekend against the Brumbies, the Melbourne side may find things a little tougher this side of the Tasman.

How good are the Highlanders?

We are about to find out, probably.

Beating an out-of-sorts Hurricanes side in Wellington and then rumbling past a struggling Chiefs outfit on their home deck may be one thing, but taking on last year's two finalists at their imposing fortresses within a week is another altogether.

The Highlanders have made a great start to their campaign and there has been much to admire about the brutally direct style of the side under rookie coach Jamie Joseph.
But it's hard not to think a reality check awaits.

The Bulls at Loftus early Sunday (NZ time) followed by the Stormers in Cape Town six days later is a double assignment the very best teams would find difficult.

It's a great challenge for a side that has shown a bit of backbone the last two weeks. You suspect they lack the firepower to live with these two quality sides, but Joseph will not be telling them that.

Who's making the early World Cup moves?

Let me give you two names from the opening fortnight - Jamie Mackintosh and Adam Thomson.
Look no further than the Highlanders duo for a couple of men making early statements to the national selectors. Thomson is playing like a man possessed and is thriving at the tackle, around the field and in the air. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but is underlining what an influential performer he can be.

Mackintosh looks a different man this year, having shed a little excess baggage and upped his workrate. He's still a big unit but a big unit who's taking ball up, hitting rucks, making tackles and scrummaging like never before.

As others still find their feet through a disrupted early season, Thomson and Mackintosh have made emphatic statements from the off.

So there you have it. Five big questions to ponder. While we're at it, my predictions for week three: the Crusaders nudge the Tahs in a close battle of Trafalgar; the Blues bounce back in a high-scorer over the Lions; the Chiefs thrash the Rebels in Hamilton; the Brumbies celebrate their coaching change with a win over the Reds; the Force upset the Sharks in Perth; the Stormers cruise past the Cheetahs; and the Bulls pull away from the Highlanders in Pretoria.

- Stuff

No comments: