Super Rugby 2014 Preview: New Zealand Conference

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BLUES

Auckland has now gone an entire decade without getting their hands on the coveted crown, reaching the semis only twice during the last ten years. They fell short to 2011’s winners, the Reds, in the first season of the 15-team format, but since then have lost their way, ending last year with six consecutive losses.

A very worrying factor is the recruitment of Ma’a Nonu. He has a terrible track record in the discipline department and if the coach and captain can’t keep him under control, they could very well spend many a minute with only fourteen men on the field. Nobody will disagree that he is a different kettle of fish when he dons his nation colours, but he is just not worth the risk at this level.

However, there is some serious talent in their group, with a handful of last year’s unknowns already swept up by the All Black selectors. Unfortunately these youngsters will have to manage without the stellar leadership of Ali Williams as he heads off to France. The Blues look a little light upfront and might struggle to secure possession, but the back row consists of some phenomenal players and then there is electrifying pace and skill amongst the backs.

On paper they look the part and if they can shake off the Nonu curse, they could very well push many a side to the very end. I just don’t think they have a pack with enough grunt to see them into a qualifying spot, however.

Predicted finish on NZ Log: 3

CHIEFS

With back to back victories, the reigning champs will enter this year’s competition with a big fat target on their backs as the opposition will be desperate to deny them a hat-trick. Lifting this prestigious trophy twice in a row is a pretty decent achievement, one that only the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls have managed since 1996. If the Chiefs go all the way again this year, they’ll join the Crusaders as being the only teams to have ever done so.

History will tell you that very little player movement occurs when teams are doing well, and that is no different in the Chiefs camp. When one takes a look at their new recruits, it becomes evident that they’ve only dabbled with the depth of the squad and that the core is still intact.

The loss of their courageous captain, Craig Clarke, and try-scoring machine Lelia Masaga, are the only two regular starters that have gone on to further pursue their careers abroad. In come two Crusaders in the form of Robbie Fruean and Tom Marshall, both very exciting and I’ve got a feeling that they’ll fit in perfectly. On top of that Kane Thompson and Mils Muliaina return from Japan to lend some valuable experience.

They won’t be easily pushed off their perch, but I think the moment might get bigger than the man when they find themselves still in the running during the knock-out stages. Wining this championship three times in a row takes a bit more than pure talent.

Predicted finish on NZ Log: 2

CRUSADERS

No matter how badly they play at times, there’s as much of that unmistakable fear factor surrounding the Crusaders as there is when opponents face up to the All Blacks. That’ll be down to the number of internationals wearing the red and black – they can boast an All Black or two in just about every position. Even though five seasons have come and gone without them lifting the cup, they’ve featured in every semi-final since 2008. In fact, the Saders have only missed out on a mere three occasions since 1996. Now that is an impressive track record.

Taking a quick scan of their 2014 squad makes you wonder how Todd Blackadder sleeps the night before naming his 22-man line-up. There are no major changes behind the scenes in Christchurch, with the loss of Robbie Fruean and back-up fullback Tom Marshall to the Chiefs the only newsworthy moves. Headline makers like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw will be pushed to perform consistently by sufficiently experienced youngsters like Tom Taylor and Matt Todd, both of them having already proved their worth at this level.

Always slow to start, but once they get momentum the Crusaders are a hard bunch to beat. They’ll be feeling the pressure of not reclaiming the elusive trophy. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they go all the way this year.

Predicted finish on NZ Log: 1

HIGHLANDERS

Last year’s whipping boys ended with the same number of wins as the controversial Southern Kings, and could very well carry that same mantle this year. They managed to somehow hang in there most of the time during 2013, only to fall just short on the scoreboard – pocketing losing bonus points on five occasions.

They will fight an uphill battle right from the start as the majority of their squad are unknown with most of the electrifying backline absent this time around. Players like Hosea Gear, Kade Poki, Tamati Ellison and Colin Slade at least provided a lot of entertainment during last year’s losing cause. On top of that they will field an entire new-look front row with Andrew Hore retiring, Jamie Macintosh heading off to the Chiefs and Tony Woodcock joining the Blues. At least they still have the two Smiths in Aaron and Ben, two All Blacks that are worth more than their weight in gold.

Unfortunately two swallows have never made a summer and the Landers will be in for some tough times ahead.

Predicted finish on the NZ Log: 5

HURRICANES

With no big losses and no big recruitments, the Hurricanes look a settled bunch with hair-raising speed, quick feet and skilful forwards. However, the same thing was said ahead of their disappointing 2013 season.

Loaded with quite an impressive number of Kiwis, their previous failures are still a mindboggling affair. A lack of grunt among the forwards will again see them lose the battle for possession and therein lies an almost impossible task to score tries for the likes of Julian Savea, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane. The majority of their backline could easily run out for the All Blacks, but without front foot ball, not even the highly talented Beauden Barrett will be able to keep them in contention.

I still expect the men from Wellington to score some spectacular tries with their scintillating running, but when the final whistle blows, they’ll be on the wrong end of the stick more often than not.

Predicted finish on NZ Log: 4

By Jackie Smit

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