Super 14 - Season Preview
Usual suspects eye southern hemisphere glory
February 10, 2010
Bulls winger Bryan Habana hoists the Super 14 trophy aloft on what was to be his last appearance for the Pretoria-based side © Getty Images
Bakkies Botha Schalk Burger Dan Carter Quade Cooper Rocky Elsom Matt Giteau Zac Guildford Richie McCaw Ma'a Nonu John Smit Carlos Spencer
The battle for 2010 Super 14 crown kicks off this weekend following a frantic pre-season dominated by high-profile transfers and the on-going debate surrounding the mass appeal of the competition.
All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter returns to the fray in the familiar colours of the Crusaders after an injury-disrupted sojourn with French club Perpignan last year while Springboks winger Bryan Habana will begin a new chapter in his prolific career with the Stormers having opted for a switch from the all-conquering Bulls. And the Brumbies have also been busy in the off-season having lured Wallabies skipper Rocky Elsom home after a successful stint with Irish province Leinster.
As big as these names are, all have had to accept second billing to Sanzar's latest attempt to win the rating battle. In a bid to deliver the kind of crowd-pleasing action that they hope will have fans flocking through the turnstiles and tuning in, referees have been told to spearhead the battle to free the ball up. As a result we can expect referees to be much tougher on tacklers who will be expected to release the ball carrier completely before bidding for possession. In addition, the scrum will also come under close scrutiny and anyone advancing from an off-side position can also expect to feel the wrath of the referee's whistle.
Officials have been keen to stress that these directives do not represent a change in the laws but instead are intended to limit the room for interpretation and provide clarity for coaches, players, officials and perhaps more importantly fans. Will the changes ensure a more entertaining product? Well, pre-season has prompted mixed reviews with many waiting until the serious stuff before passing judgement so all eyes will be on the opening exchanges in what is the final competition in the current format before the launch of the expanded Super 15 next year.
The Bulls enter this year's title chase as defending champions with the franchise under immense pressure to live up to a dazzling 2009 that culminated with a 61-17 demolition of the Chiefs in the season finale. A memorable year for the Pretoria-based side also included victory in the Currie Cup while many of their leading lights were instrumental in South Africa's series victory over the British & Irish Lions. Habana's departure leaves a sizeable hole in their armoury and lock Bakkies Botha will also miss the start of the campaign with an Achilles injury. The return of Heyneke Meyer to the backroom team will go a long way to filling that formidable void and any side that can boast the likes of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Morne Steyn is guaranteed to be there or thereabouts.
Habana was not the Stormers' only high-profile recruit with Jacque Fourie also accepting an invite to move to Cape Town in the wake of Jean de Villiers' move to Irish province Munster and Luke Watson's decision to accept a new challenge with English side Bath. The loss of such an influential duo will test the team's resolve but with Springboks flanker Schalk Burger taking on the captaincy they are not going to be found wanting in terms of commitment.
The Cheetahs have failed to impress in recent years with consistency their main problem and as with last year the class of forwards Juan Smith and Heinrich Brussow will be asked to shoulder more than their fair share of the work load. The Johannesburg-based Lions have also struggled but have renewed hope with Springboks assistant coach Dick Muir taking the team's reigns. Andre Pretorius' ill-fated decision to switch to the Western Force left a creative void that has since been filled by Kiwi veteran Carlos Spencer but few see his arrival as a turning point for the beleaguered franchise.
The South African challenge is completed by the Sharks who looked destined for the finals last season before imploding. The team's preparations for the new season were rocked by an injury to Argentinean playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez that curtailed his stay in Durban but they can still call on the international quality of the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and captain John Smit who will lead the Sharks into the new campaign.
As so often in the case, the Crusaders look set to lead the New Zealand challenge with Carter returning to anchor the backline. Lock Chris Jack is another to have returned to Canterbury but he will miss the start of the season with a wrist injury. Talismanic skipper Richie McCaw will also sit out the early rounds as he enjoys an extended break but they will not be wanting for experience with the likes of Brad Thorn readying himself for another campaign or for exciting young potential with rising star Zac Guildford set to light up the Super 14 stage after making the switch from the Hurricanes.
The Chiefs surprised many on their run to the final last year with their talented back division featuring the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Richard Kahui providing a clinical cutting edge. Influential All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina is another to be granted extra time to rest and recuperate with the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon and without his steadying hand they may struggle to back up one stand-out year with another.
The Hurricanes were usurped somewhat by the Chiefs last season but once again they appear to have the playing talent to challenge for the title with forwards Rodney So'oialo, Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata and Jason Eaton and backs Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane and Hosea Gear offering an exciting balance. The Auckland-based Blues are another side under mounting pressure to turn things around after several fruitless years. Quite how their talented squad has failed to deliver has puzzled many but the re-introduction of centre Luke McAlister and the signing of Crusaders stand-off Stephen Brett may prove the key to their resurgence. The Highlanders continue to struggle in the shadow of their Kiwi rivals and despite the emergence of All Blacks Adam Thomson and Jamie Mackintosh they look set to be also-rans once again.
Australia's interest in the competition failed to extend beyond the regular season last year but hopes are high of a turnaround in fortunes. The side making all the headlines in the off-season were the Brumbies who in addition to luring Elsom to the nation's capital, also secured the services of Wallabies fly-half Matt Giteau who returns the Brumbies after a stint with the Western Force. Stephen Hoiles captains a squad laden with experience including two other former Wallabies captains in Stirling Mortlock and George Smith who will be embarking on his final season of Super Rugby before heading for pastures new. The Brumbies won the last of their three titles in 2004 but look well placed to challenge for honours once again.
The Waratahs have led the Australian challenge of late and have another strong talent pool heading into the 2010 campaign, bolstered by the addition of two more dynamic backs in Berrick Barnes and Drew Mitchell. The Tahs are not wanting for muscle either with the strong-running Wycliff Palu and veteran Phil Waugh set to lead the forward effort. The Western Force were left reeling by Giteau's departure and they suffered a further blow when Pretorius was sidelined with a season-ending hamstring injury. The upshot is that rising star James O'Connor is set to shoulder a lot more responsibility while the addition of prop Matt Dunning will bring some much-needed experience ahead of a season that sees them switch to a new home at the ME Stadium.
This year's contenders are rounded out by the Reds with former Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie at the helm after a stint in Europe. He will be hoping to conjure the same winning formula that he managed in Sydney but is not blessed with the same amount of talent. All eyes will be on Quade Cooper to see how he responds to the burglary-related controversy that haunted him in the off-season while Wallabies Will Genia, Digby Ioane and captain James Horwill bring some class to proceedings.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.