Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Assessing the Kiwi Super Rugby teams

MARC HINTON 19/03/2012

OPINION: No one will need to tell Jamie Joseph that his Highlanders are a long way from the perfect team that their Super Rugby record so far might paint them as.
Just like no one will need to tell Pat Lam that his Blues still have plenty of time to wriggle out of the spot they find themselves in, popularly referred to as somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
After a month of a season that will not conclude until August there is still a long, long way to go. No one's done enough yet, just like no one has dug themselves too deep a hole either.
So reality rules thus far in a New Zealand conference that gives every indication of being a mighty scrap to the very end in 2012.
But that doesn't stop the Highlanders being in a strong position, with four wins from as many matches, and the Blues being in a decidedly dodgy one, with three defeats from their opening quartet of games.
The other three New Zealand teams probably occupy territory between these polar opposites.
The Chiefs are travelling nicely with three wins from four heading into their bye, while the Hurricanes can feel pretty satisfied with their first month's work with a 2-2 record that is a lot better than most forecast.
The Crusaders, having tucked away an early bye, have made another of those slow starts with back-to-back defeats following a fortuitous opening-night victory in Auckland. But no one doubts this group's ability to turn things round in time to take their customary place in the post-season.
So, a month in, here's my rundown on the five Kiwi franchises:
After the emotional high of 2011's remarkable runnerup campaign, the Crusaders have started the new season a little on the flat side.
Perhaps that's to be expected, with so many World Cup All Blacks in their midst. The absence of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter from the opening month hasn't helped either.
Still, it was unusual to see the Crusaders fail to kick on in Dunedin after hauling in the Highlanders in the second half; and also strange to see them so out of sorts in some of the staple areas of their game against the Chiefs in Napier.
This is a group at its best when under the gun, and the early bye would have been spent regrouping and reassessing. They need their All Blacks to set the tone. That's men like the Franks brothers, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Zac Guildford.
Without doubt getting Carter back in the driver's seat will help. You suspect his absence is being felt more keenly than McCaw's.
Star player: Matt Todd.
Best moment: The opening night win on Eden Park.
Prognosis: Is it the end of an era? Way too early to start penning any obits just yet. Some actual home games will help too.
Grade: 5/10.

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