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NZ Teams Bull-ish Despite Challenge

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Fuseworks Media
NZ Teams Bull-ish Despite Challenge

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

Wellington, Feb 8 NZPA - It's the scoreline to leave even the optimistic New Zealand Super 14 rugby supporter sweating ahead of this weekend's competition kickoff.

61-17.

For those who had banished it from the memory banks, that was the result at Loftus Versfeld last May when the Bulls methodically trampled the Chiefs to win the 2009 crown.

A Super rugby final had seen nothing like it and the Bulls' utter dominance is a stark reminder that the good vibes surrounding New Zealand's five franchises during the pre-season should be swallowed with a dose of reality.

The core of the champion side from South Africa are back -- with one key addition -- while the ACT Brumbies look like providing a much-needed title tilt out of Australia, handing this year's championship an open, unpredictable feel.

The same three New Zealand sides who reached the semifinals last year -- the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders -- carry the greatest hopes of snaring an 11th home town title in 15 years of Super rugby.

Local bookmakers have installed the Crusaders as favourites, the return of star first five-eighth Daniel Carter seen as key. He was on his ill-fated French sabbatical last year when the seven-time champions somehow scraped into fourth place while struggling all campaign on attack.

Playing behind a star-studded forward pack boasting key All Blacks Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn and Kieran Read, and boasting a skilled backline outside him, Carter should have the freedom to control games and pile on points.

The Hurricanes roster once again boasts a quality all-round feel, making it hard to rule out a sixth semifinal appearance in eight years under coach Colin Cooper. The question is whether the motivation of Cooper's departure at the end of this season can spark a maiden title.

The focus again will be at first five-eighth, where rising star Aaron Cruden makes a long-awaited step up to Super rugby level, perhaps to ignite the most exciting outside division in the competition.

Nightmares of Pretoria will have faded by now for the Chiefs, who have had time to reflect on their best-ever campaign and build for another tilt under coach Ian Foster.

Centre Richard Kahui is back and fit, leading a lively backline along with playmakers Stephen Donald and Mike Delany. Loose forwards Sione Lauaki, Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer are key Chiefs weapons, with Lauaki a surprise choice as captain while usual skipper Mils Muliaina sits out the first three rounds.

Since dominating the early days of the Super 12, the Blues have largely underperformed given their resources and it's easy to see them falling short again this year.

The season-ending loss to injury of All Blacks lock Ali Williams, three minutes into his pre-season, is a body blow the Blues may struggle to recover from even though they seem to have patched some holes in the halves and at loose forward.

Coach Pat Lam will need to get the most out of new No 10 Stephen Brett while his team must avoid the injury disasters that struck last year.

The Highlanders have been the lowest-placed New Zealand team in each of the past five seasons and haven't placed in the top half of the field since 2002.

To improve either of those statistics this year would be a success given the southern region's inability to attract and retain quality players.

The recent improvement in Southland rugby and the leadership of players such as captain Jimmy Cowan, flanker Adam Thomson and lock Tom Donnelly give some reason for hope.

South Africa's challenge is clearly led again by the Bulls, whose only important loss is that of star winger Bryan Habana.

The likes of lock Victor Matfield, No 8 Pierre Spies, halfback Fourie du Preez and first five-eighth Morne Steyn carry a menacing air. Their 2007 championship coach Heyneke Meyer has also returned, to help successor Eugene Eloff in a director of coaching role.

The Sharks under New Zealand coach John Plumtree remain a strong allround unit while the Stormers have been strengthened by Springboks stars Habana and Jaque Fourie -- the latter acquired from the Lions.

High veldt strugglers the Lions and Cheetahs are expected to again perch in the competition nether regions, with the Lions desperately pinning their hopes on 34-year-old former All Blacks playmaker Carlos Spencer to spark some magic.

After Australian sides were shut out of last year's playoffs, horns are blaring that the Brumbies can add to their two titles after adding key Wallabies Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom to their roster.

The musical chairs across the Tasman seems to have weakened the three other Australian sides although the Waratahs could be a sharper attacking outfit courtesy of snaring international backs Berrick Barnes and Drew Mitchell.

As the Bulls proved, late-season momentum and home advantage in the playoffs means everything but nobody will want to slip from contention in the opening weeks.

The Chiefs are traditional slow starters and face the stiffest early task by travelling to South Africa, so will hope not to pay too dearly for the absence of steadying fullback Muliaina in the opener against the Sharks.

That match is the only non-derby fixture in the first round.

In New Zealand, the Blues host the Hurricanes in Albany to kick the competition off on Friday night while the Crusaders are home to the Highlanders in a southern showdown 24 hours later.

While predicting the winner on May 29 is treacherous, the quality of this year's competition as a spectacle is also under the microscope.

It was far from super for much of 2009, with the Bulls largely basing their dominance around a tactical kicking game.

That was subsequently adopted with success by the Springboks and other winning teams as "give it a boot" became rugby's mantra in 2009.

Talk of positive referee interpretations and improved team attitudes to boost viewership in this Super 14 give reason for hope that the competition can revive a history of fast-moving entertainment.

However, the reality of modern rugby is that win-at-all-cost has an inevitable final say.

 

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