AUCKLAND, NZ: If there’s one thing you can set your watch to in New Zealand, it’s the collective groan you’ll hear when Super Rugby starts. For a nation of Rugby fanatics, NZ sure does like to whinge about the season starting too early (especially when the cricket team is doing so well). Eventually that groan will subside in certain parts of the country when their teams start winning and turn into an angry grumble in the parts that don’t.
So, with that most predictable of predictions out of the way, here’s a run-down on what you can expect from the powerhouse conference in Super Rugby. From the top:
Expect 2014 to have a very much business as usual approach from The Chiefs. That’s because business has been good when you win back-to-back titles. Personnel changes have been minimal; one key addition however is the enigmatic Robbie Fruean who will look to recapture the form that tipped for a black jersey as soon as he left high school. Their shot at a hat-trick will hinge on the form of Aaron Cruden, who will most certainly have his sights set on owning the All Black 10 jersey full-time.
Every year the drums beat for the Crusaders demise into mediocrity, every year they drown them out with ruthless efficiency and ambition. It’d be foolish to count out this side, even though they haven’t been to title-town for a few years now. They still have two 100-test All Blacks on their books in Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, as well as a host of senior experienced players. Keep an eye on youngsters Johnny McNicholl and Jordan Taufua and please heed this warning: Where there’s a Whitelock, there’s a bald spot.
Sir John Kirwan has roughly 160 minutes of footy to live up to another summer’s worth of hype from media. After the two openers against the Highlanders and Crusaders we should know if: A. The Blues have any chance of winning their first title in 11 years and B. if Benji Marshall was worth sticking on every billboard in Auckland. Benji will stick plenty of bums on Eden Park seats but it should be Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua who will provide the fireworks. They will benefit from a relatively soft and early trip to South Africa.
The catchphrase for the Canes used to be ‘Expect the Unexpected’. Usually that meant they’d beat the teams above them on the table and lose to those below. These days it means the opposite and finishing in the bottom half. Just how much longer a weary fan base will put up with poor results punctuated by outstanding play from the likes of Julian Savea, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane remains to be seen. They have another young first five gunning for Dan Carter’s black jersey in Beauden Barrett, as well as exciting young talent in Julian’s little brother Ardie and prop Reggie Goodes.
They got a new coach. They got a new stadium. They even got a massive outpouring of regional passion when they wanted to change the jersey. But unfortunately for the runt of the NZ Conference’s litter, none of this has helped them achieve anything in the last few seasons. Plus we haven’t even mentioned the glut of senior All Blacks they’ve signed. Sadly for the Highlanders this season isn’t shaping up to be any different. If they do cause any upsets it’ll be on the back of Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and the other team contracting some sort of virus before kick-off.
So 2014 will be another year where the usual suspects will rise to the top of the NZ Conference. Expect big things from teams starting with ‘C’, not so much from ones starting with ‘H’ and we’ll have a better idea of whether mobs will be forming to torch Sir John Kirwan’s place after a couple of rounds.
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