Craig Dowd
Could be a big year for Crusaders
Craig Dowd
February 10, 2015
Greg Growden and Sam Bruce assess the New Zealand Super Rugby conference

Super Rugby 2015 is all about players getting their timing right.

Rugby World Cup year increases the emphasis on consistent performance throughout the campaign, and the tournament represents the last chance for players to push their case for Cup selection. No-one is exempt: incumbents need to back up their form, there's newbies who need to push their case, and there're only so many positions in each country for players going to the World Cup.

Two positions will be of interest for New Zealand. Someone needs to put their hand up at halfback behind Aaron Smith, while there is also a role at hooker. Dane Coles leads the way and Keven Mealamu should be there if he gets through the Super Rugby season unscathed, which leaves a third hooker vacancy; if either does not get through the Super Rugby season unscathed ...

All the other positions have some tough competition, and the mid-field is just so congested, and there will be good players who miss out. Injuries will make selections easier in some areas, but it is a year that players cannot afford to drift into.

If I were a player I would be taking this Super Rugby campaign very, very seriously: it's not about timing your run towards the end of it; you have got to hit the ground running, you've got to put your hand up and show your form very early.

That is not an easy thing to achieve when you are looking at being at peak readiness for the World Cup. But with form comes enjoyment, and your form comes naturally when you are enjoying your rugby. When you lose a few games and you're trying to find your form, and forcing it, it is always a hard thing.

Getting those combinations right is a real tester for each team and, ultimately, we talk about guys getting places on a plane; but Super Rugby is about the teams. Coaches will say, "OK, there's a World Cup, it's more of a distraction, this is about our squad and our team performing". The franchise will come first.

There will be players with selfish thoughts about preserving their bodies and getting it right for the real campaign, the World Cup. But it is first step first; if they don't do the franchise step they may not make the next step.

We do say it year in and year out, but we will say it again. By the time Super Rugby ends, there will be some names we will be talking about who were not on the radar as the competition started. They are players new to the professional environment, where they get their fitness levels up while it tunes their mind and fine tunes their skills to the point where what comes out at the other end can be quite a surprise.

Super Rugby Preview

Coming back to the Super Rugby campaign, this is a big year for the Blues. It is the third year under Sir John Kirwan so there is a lot of expectation for them to put their best foot forward and show the progress made over those seasons.

Again there is attention at No.10. They have two young players in Ihaia West and Simon Hickey, while Dan Bowden has been brought in as well to add to what has been a merry-go-round of first-fives inside the Blues franchise. Someone needs to put their hand up.

The question mark for me regards the pack. Specifically, the locking department has really been the question mark since Ali Williams and Anthony Boric left the Blues. Patrick Tuipolotu has really taken on that role, and it is important that Calum Retallick and Josh Bekhuis step up. The Blues do have the pack so long as everyone does their job.

Jimmy Cowan is an experienced player at half-back and it will be interesting to see how he goes cracking the whip over the pack.

It is a big year for them. You wouldn't want to be putting the house on them, but we want to see some improvement.

The Chiefs look absolutely brilliant. They've recruited well, they've got a very, very strong squad, and they are going to be a tough team to beat. They will be there or thereabouts when it comes to the other end of the season.

They have a huge backline with Sonny Bill Williams, Seta Tamanivalu and Hosea Gear; they have copious amounts of talent. And they have the pack to do the job with players like Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam and Ben Tameifuna.

Beauden Barrett has a great backline to direct if the forwards supply enough possession © Getty Images

The Hurricanes have a pretty special backline of their own. It is the last Super Rugby campaign for both Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the midfield maestros who may want to prove a point this year. And then there is Beauden Barrett, who you would have to say is the incumbent All Blacks first-five; he is going to want to stay there so his performance is key. Again for them, it is going to come down to the boys up front. They showed some great improvement after a slow start last year.

Chris Boyd, their new coach, will be glad the ITM Cup is behind him, but he is a good coach and I believe he now needs to focus on one job rather than several; if he does so, I think we will see the best of Chris Boyd come through.

The Crusaders? I think they will start slowly which is expected. I don't care that they were thumped in the pre-season game against the Reds because, traditionally, when it comes to the other end of the season, they are going to be there.

They've got the squad, they've got incumbent All Blacks and they will hit their form and they will play well. I have no issues with the Crusaders, and I think for the first time Todd Blackadder has everyone available. No-one's on sabbatical, as has been the course over the past two years, so there's no excuses from that end.

This year could be a big one for them.

The Highlanders seem to be tracking really well. They will be that doggy side that you just never take lightly. Malakai Fekitoa was an absolute standout last year and he needs to back that up this year. He certainly has the talent, but he will be a marked man this year so the players around Fekitoa must step up and take some of that load.

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