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Super 14 Preview

In Rugby Union on February 8, 2010 at 11:56 pm

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition kicks off this Friday, with South Africa’s Blue Bulls again looking like the team to beat. Here’s a rundown of all 14 teams

Bulls

We start with last year’s champions the Bulls of Pretoria. They have retained the nucleus of their team for this year’s competition, but they have lost their star winger Bryan Habana to the Stormers. Their main strengths are in the forward pack and at half-back. The second-row combination of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha should ensure a steady stream of line-out possession, and a solid front row featuring the giant Gurthro Steenkamp and new signing Gary Botha at hooker will anchor the scrum.

This solid set-piece base will give the half back pairing of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn the perfect platform to control the game. They also have beef in the centre in the form of De Wet Barry and flyers like Zane Kirchner and prolific youngster Gerhard van den Heever out wide.

A friendly schedule sees them starting out against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein before a 4 game home stand sets them up for an Australasian tour and three more dates in Loftus Versfeld.

With their experience, they will be major factors in this year’s competition, and should be certainties for the semi finals.

Chiefs

Last year’s finalists the Waikato Chiefs entered the decider last year with high hopes. They left with nothing more than bruises and painful memories. A 61-17 shellacking at the hands of a rampant Bulls side will have only whetted their hunger for revenge though, and these Chiefs will be dangerous again this year.

Their potent backline will once again rack up shedloads of points, with Brendan Leonard and Steven Donald at half back, Richard Kahui in the centre, and a rapier back three of Mils Muliaina, Lelia Masaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu. Defence has been their problem in recent years, as they’ve been drawn into high-scoring shoot-outs too often for comfort. But they showed against the Hurricanes in last year’s semi final that they’ve made huge strides in that area.

Their tight five has been bolstered by the signing of prop Ben Afeaki, and their back row is a who’s who of rampaging Kiwis. Liam Messam, Sione Lauaki and Tanerau Latimer are not men you’d enjoy trying to stop, and with the go-forward ball they generate that backline will score tries.

They have a nasty schedule which begins with three away games, but if they can continue to play it tight in defence then they have every chance of making it to the business end of the season again.

Hurricanes

The Wellington Hurricanes have been Super rugby’s nearly men for a while now, consistently stumbling at the semi final and final stage.

This year could be their year, but a lot rests on whoever takes over the pivotal no.10 jersey. Piri Weepu and Willy Ripia have been alternating in the position, but the better option looks to be Ripia with Weepu inside. The ‘Canes could gamble by putting youngster Aaron Cruden at fly-half, but it might be too big an ask in his debut season. However, if they can crack the code at half-back, then they can release the blockbusting Ma’a Nonu and the guile of Conrad Smith, Corey Jane and Hosea Gear.

They boast one of the more well-balanced squads in the competition, with 13 All Blacks. Their pack also has a solid look about it, with new captain Andrew Hore joined by Neemia Tialata, Jason Eaton and Rodney So’oialo, among others.

They also have a forgiving start to the season, with the Blues, Force, Cheetahs and Lions their first four games. It could all depend on getting it right at out-half though.

Crusaders

Last year’s semi-finalists are the bookies favourites this year after they added Chris Jack, Zac Guildford and Dan Bowden to their already formidable squad. They did lose mini-Carter Steven Brett though, along with some experienced campaigners in Casey Laulala and Leon McDonald.

This is all offset by the return of Dan Carter though, and if he is fit and firing then the Crusaders will take some beating. They also have reigning ‘World Player of the Year’ Richie McCaw to lead the pack, but may be a little thin at scrum –half. The rest of the backline look in fine shape though, with some astute signings in youngsters Bowden and Robbie Fruean in particular looking like ones for the future.

The Crusaders are favourites for a reason, and themselves and the Bulls could well be on a collision course for an epic final.



Waratahs

New South Wales’ finest narrowly missed out on a semi-final spot last year, and the exciting signings of Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell and Sosene Anesi would suggest that they are determined to go at least one better this year.

Those three should slot neatly into an underpowered backline which could only muster a handful of bonus points in last year’s tournament. Add this to a bruising pack which contains an all-Wallaby front row along with stars like Wycliff Palu, Phil Waugh and Dean Mumm and you have a top quality team which could easily emerge as a real threat this year.

They kick things off with an away date against the Reds, but things get messy after that. Their next three games see them face off with the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks in a stretch that will make or break their season.

Should they come through with 3 wins out of 4 then they have to be taken seriously. Anything less, and they may struggle for the remainder of the season.

Sharks

The boys from Durban had an impressive campaign last year, but fell agonisingly short of the top four. A shaky second half of the season was finally to prove their undoing as they went down by just a point to the Bulls in the final week of the season.

This year, they’ve lost Frans Steyn and the richly talented Juan Martin Hernandez to injury, and Ruan Pienaar is struggling for fitness. This could cause a major problem at out-half.

Their strength lies in a pulverising front five, which contains Springboks John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira and Deon Carstens among others. New signing William Alberts will join Ryan Kankowski and Jean Deysel to round out one of the better packs in this year’s competition. They also have a keen cutting edge out wide, with the evergreen Stefan Terblanche still producing alongside JP Pietersen and new signing Louis Ludik.

Had they been able to field Hernandez outside the emerging Rory Kockott, then we could have talked about the Sharks as a serious outside bet for the tournament. Unfortunately, it looks as though they will be forced to start Monty Dumond or Steve  Meyer at 10, which will limit their options.

As it is, they will do well to survive a hellish opening to the season, as the relative calm of home dates with the Chiefs and Cheetahs gives way to the storm of a 5 match away swing.

Brumbies

Last year’s 7th placed team have strengthened significantly this year, and look like a great bet to reach the semi finals.

The additions of Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom have transformed them from a solid outfit into potential champions, and the recruitment drive continued with Josh Valentine and Justin Harrison also climbing aboard the good ship Brumbie.

With an all-Wallaby pack that also contains Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, George Smith and captain Stephen Hoiles, they should have no shortage of quality ball for their shiny new half-back pairing. They may lack a slight cutting edge out wide, but Stirling Mortlock and Adam Ashley-Cooper are still quality players and the Brumbies are a force to be reckoned with.

One stumbling block could be a tough opening run that sees them kick off their season with three away fixtures, but this Brumbies side are built to last and should have a major say in the destination of this year’s trophy.

Western Force

A nightmare off season which saw the Force stripped of Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Josh Valentine and a host of other stars was cruelly compounded by the loss of Andre Pretorius to injury.

Coach John Mitchell will have a serious job marshalling his remaining troops. He and captain Nathan Sharpe have decided on a less expansive game this year, and their signings have reflected that as they bolstered the front row with Matt Dunning and others.

They still have a promising young back row containing last year’s ‘Player of the Year’ Matt Hodgson and Wallabies duo David Pocock and Richard Brown, and their backline will be dangerous. Carrying their hopes this year is teenage sensation James O’Connor, who will be joined in the backline by Ryan Cross and the prolific Cameron Shepherd.

A top half finish would probably represent success for the Force this year, but an unforgiving opening sees them meeting the Brumbies, Hurricanes, Chiefs, Bulls, Stormers and Waratahs in the first six weeks. It could get ugly for Mitchell’s boys.

Blues

The Auckland Blues used to be a by-word for excellence in rugby, but their glory days in the Super 12 are well behind them and last year’s 9th placed finish was no surprise.

This year’s edition look like a far more dangerous side though, and have quality all over the pitch. The front row contains Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, who will be backed up by Ali Williams in the second row and Jerome Kaino.

Some astute signings behind the scrum will see Alby Mathewson join up with Steven Brett at half-back, with Luke McAllister returning to complement the outside threat of Isaia Toeava and Joe Rokocoko.

Despite their evident talent, doubts remain over their ability to compete with the likes of the Crusaders and the Bulls. Throw in the huge leaps made by the Brumbies and Stormers and Auckland will have a job on their hands making it to the semi-finals.

They face a tough opener against the Hurricanes, but should they win that one, they are faced with eminently winnable fixtures against the Highlanders and the Reds. If their new combinations click, then they will have a chance against anyone on their day.

Stormers

The Stormers could only finish in 10th place last year, and they were stung into action this offseason with the high profile signings of World Cup winners Bryan Habana and Jacque Fourie.

You probably won’t recognise too many names in the forward pack, but the all-Western Province front row was one of the best units in the Currie Cup, and will be augmented by some seriously tough nuts elsewhere in the pack.

Schalk ‘Fingers’ Burger takes the captain’s armband, but will need to regain the form which saw him regularly touted as one of the best back rowers in world rugby just a few years ago. With their dangerous backline, the Stormers could be an outside bet for the semi-finals, especially with their favourable schedule.

An opening day away fixture with the Lions is followed by five consecutive home games, which could leave them in a prime spot at the half way point of the season.

Highlanders

The weakest of the Kiwi teams last year, the Otago Highlanders will be desperate to regain some pride in this year’s competition.

Led once again by the fiery Jimmy Cowan, they come into this year’s tournament with a very similar squad after a relatively quiet off-season. Promising centre Dan Bowden will be a loss, and you shouldn’t expect too many fireworks from this side, who didn’t exactly set the season alight last year.

Having said that, they are a tough unit to break down. They have a durable front row with quality players like Tom Donnelly and Adam Thomson in the pack. They also possess some promising youngsters, and could cause an upset or two.

Lions

The Lions had a difficult season last year, followed by a nightmare offseason which saw the departures of Jacque Fourie, Andre Pretorius, Willem Alberts and Louis Ludik.

New coach Dick Muir has done a good job limiting the damage though, securing the signing of former All Black Carlos Spencer along with some other useful additions.

Scrum half Jano Vermaak will be missing for the opening few rounds though, and with one of the most unforgiving draws in the whole tournament, they may be replaced by the Southern Kings in next year’s expanded Super 15 unless they can pull off something special.

Reds

Queensland narrowly missed out on the wooden spoon last year, saved only by the ineptitude of the Cheetahs. They have been stripped of playmaker Berrick Barnes this year though, and could find themselves struggling again.

They possess some talented youngsters in Will Genia, Digby Ioane and the mercurial Quade Cooper, but too many times last year they showed their inexperience.

Captain James Horwill adds some steel to the pack along with Daniel Braid, but this will be another transitional season for the Reds, who need some additions to the side to really threaten.

Cheetahs

Last year’s wooden spooners from the Free State will probably be battling it out with the Lions to avoid elimination at the close of the season, and they may just have the edge on their countrymen. This is mainly because of a far easier schedule which should see them with a big lead over the Lions at the half way point of the season.

They have the luxury of a world class back row containing captain Juan Smith and fellow Bok Heinrich Brussow. They also have a huge front row and some exciting backs in Jongi Nokwe and Meyer Bosman, in particular.

They face a tough opener against the Bulls, but things get more manageable after that, and they will hope to have secured their safety well before they meet the Lions on the final day of the season.

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