At the start of each season, every coach believes that this is the year his team will win the prestigious Super 14 trophy, and every supporter hopes that the coach is right. 2009 won’t be any different, but here’s out team-by-team guide to the runners and riders.
The Blues have a proud record in the competition and have lifted the trophy on 3 occasions, the last in 2003. With their attacking back-line and a superb tight five they should pose a threat to most teams. The loss of Nick Evans could dent their semifinal aspirations, but in former Hurricanes number 10 Jimmy Gopperth, the Blues have a capable replacement.
The Auckland-based team have seven home fixtures and will hit the road on six occasions – starting their campaign with three away games against the Force, Bulls and Stormers respectively. A strong start to their campaign and they should be in the running for the last four.
Key players: Captain Keven Mealamu will lead the charge and will rely heavily on the experience of Ali Williams (lock), Joe Rokococo (wing) and Gopperth.
Prediction: Mid-table, but with a little luck they could claim a semifinal spot.
After a disappointing 9th placed finish in 2008, veteran Brumbies captain Stirling Mortlock will again spearhead the Brumbies charge to a third Super rugby title, but I believe they will again fall a few inches short. The Canberra based team had one of the worst packs of forwards in 2008, and fans will be hoping for a big improvement in that aspect of their game. The Brumbies’ biggest challenge will still be to find a way forward after the Gregan/Larkham-era came to an end in 2007.
Key players: Mortlock (if he can stay injury-free), George Smith (flanker) and Adam Ashley-Cooper (utility back).
2007 Champions the Bulls will have to improve on last season’s log position by at least six places to claim a semifinal spot. The Bulls are renowned for their bulk pack of forwards, which have to be on song for the duration of the competition for them to have a realistic chance in the competition and captain Victor Matfield will know that a lot fly half Morne Steyn’s goal kicking. The Bulls have lost their three warm-up games 22-42 (Lions), 16-20 (Cheetahs) and 9-39 (Sharks) but they’ll be hoping that this does not set the trend for the rest of their season, especially since they only have six home games at their Fortress – Loftus Versveld.
Key players: Scrum half Fourie du Preez could be the key to a successful campaign. Victor Matfield and lock-partner Bakkies Botha together with speedy winger Bryan Habana and Morne Steyn will all be key to a semifinal birth.
Prediction: Mid-table finishers with a chance of sliding down the log if things do go wrong.
The Cheetahs have ended the past four years around the bottom region of the log and have only achieved a best finish of 10th place in 2006 – they are likely to finish the 2009 season in about the same position. To make matters worse, they have arguably the worst draw as they start off their campaign with six away fixtures, five of them abroad.
The Bloemfontein side do have a good pack of forwards and one of the best loose-trio’s in the business with captain Juan Smith leading their onslaught. The key to the Cheetahs’ success lies in their teamwork, especially since they don’t have many game-breakers in their side. It also wouldn’t harm their chances if they give enough quality ball to their flying wingers such as Jongi Nokwe.
Key players: Flankers Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow, Wian du Preez (prop) and Jacques-Louis Potgieter (fly half / center) would all be of vital importance to a good season.
Prediction: Bottom four.
The Hamilton based Chiefs are the only New Zealand team that have not yet played in a Super-rugby final, and are probably not going to this year either. They have an inexperienced pack of forwards, but do have a number of attacking backs – in particular All Blacks Sitiveni Sivivatu and Mils Muliaina. The Chiefs should struggle in the tighter aspects of the game, but will be dangerous when the game gets loose.
Key players: Fly half Stephan Donald will be key but also keep an eye on the whole Chiefs back line – they could rip any defense apart if they get enough ball to run with.
Prediction: Possible mid-table finishers, but like the Bulls could slip down the log very quickly.
Defending champions, the Crusaders will be without former coach Robbie Deans and kingpin Daniel Carter for the 2009 season. The Christchurch side have also lost the services of several seasoned campaigners such as Greg Somerville (prop) and Ali Williams (lock). How they adapt to these losses in personnel will be fascinating to watch, but the structures that Robbie Deans implemented during his reign as coach should carry the Crusaders to an 8th consecutive semifinal.
Key players: Captain Richie McCaw will again be at the forefront, but will lean strongly on his experience players such as Brad Thorn (lock) and Leon McDonald (fullback).
Force coach John Mitchell will be praying for some sort of consistency during 2009. The Perth based side never won more then two games in a row in 2009, but they didn’t lose more than two in a row either! They seem to be their own worst enemy, and if they can overcome that issue, they should be semifinal contenders. I doubt however that they will and would rather not put my money on the Force.
Key players: Matt Gitteau (no 10) is the Force’s go-to-guy. In Cameron Sheperd (fullback) and Drew Mitchell they have enough firing power to threaten the so-called big names in the competition.
The Highlanders have been the worst of the New Zealand teams, finishing 11th in the 2008 Super 14. They should improve their log position this season, but at their very best will end up mid-table finishers. The Dunedin-based Highlanders don’t have many of the so-called big names in their squad, but should at least be competitive at home in “The House of Pain”.
Key players: Jimmy Cowan (scrum half), Fetu’u Vainikolo (wing) and new All Black prop Jamie Mackintosh will be the go-to-guy’s.
Prediction: Tough call , but should do better then 11th place.
The Wellington based Hurricanes are one of the most exciting teams in the competition and have produced world-beaters in the 90s such as Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu and
current stars Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Rodney So’oialo are upholding their rich tradition. Like the Chiefs they have an exciting back-line, but the Hurricanes also posses a strong tight five. This, as well as the luxury of seven home fixtures should make them big contenders for the Super 14 title, or at least semifinalists.
Key players: Nonu and co-midfielder Conrad Smith will be a real threat to their opposition while captain Rodney So’oialo and hooker Andrew Hore should keep the Hurricanes engine running.
The Lions are the current wooden spoon owners and the Johannesburg-based side will be hoping for an improved performance in 2009. They actually can’t do any worse, but they’ll be aiming with a mid-table finish, although that’s highly unlikely.
The Lions have a strong pack of forwards, but that is it. They shouldn’t be a threat to the real trophy contenders, but may be capable of the occasional upset.
Key players: Springboks Andre Pretorius (fly half) and Jacque Fourie (center) will be the key to their attacking play. Keep an eye on the US Eagle flanker Todd Clever who should form a good combination with Cobus Grobbelaar.
Prediction: Bottom four.
The Queensland-based Reds have struggled in recent years and it would seem as if their magic years are gone and dusted. They have arguably the youngest team in the competition and will relive their glory years soon – unfortunately for their fans it won’t be in 2009. They should improve on last season’s 12th place, but won’t be in contention for a semifinal spot.
Key players: Daniel Braid (flanker), James Horwill (lock) and the youngsters Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper will carry the Reds hopes.
Three time finalists, the Sharks will be a big contender for a semifinal spot in this year’s competition. The Durban-based side also have a vast pool of Springboks to choose from and should have enough depth to counter any early season injuries. The Sharks have a formidable forward pack who are also very mobile, but they perhaps don’t have the best back-line in the competition.
Key players: Springbok number 8 Ryan Kankowsky together with flankers Juan Deysel and Keegan Daniel should set up a good attacking platform for players such as Ruan Pienaar (no 10) and Francois Steyn (utility back).
The Stormers missed the 2008 playoffs only due to a superior points difference by the Hurricanes. Unfortunately for the Capetown team them they should end up in roundabout the same position in 2009 – only because they lack depth in some key positions, especially at prop, lock and on the wings. If the pick up a few injuries in the first 2 or 3 games they’ll struggle to be competitive, especially since they have a tough 5 match trip abroad.
Key players: Captain Juan de Villiers (center) and Andries Bekker (lock) will be the pivotal to the Stormers’ success. Willem de Waal en Peter Grant (both no 10) will also be of vital importance for a place in the semifinals.
The Waratahs featured in three of the last four years’ playoffs, and should again be there or thereabouts in 2009. Based in Sydney they have the luxury of seven home games, but end their campaign with three away fixtures, one which will be against the Sharks. The Waratahs will be without the likes of Rocky Elsom and Daniel Vickerman, but should have enough depth to go all the way to the semifinals.
Key players: Captain Phil Waugh (flanker), Luke Burgess (scrum half) and Lote Tuqiri (wing) will be the players to watch.
The Crusaders, Hurricanes, Sharks and Waratahs are my picks for the semifinal but I always like to keep my options open and will back both the Blues and Stormers as wild cards for a possible berth in the last four.
Champions? Who can tell?
By Lardus van der Merwe
Submit this to Punditit