Friday, 27 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: Australia (Part 2 of 3)

Queensland Reds

Coach: Ewen McKenzie
Previous Wins: 2011
Last Season: 1st

Last season was incredible for the Reds, and quite frankly it came from absolutely nowhere; between 2006 and 2009 they didn’t finish inside the top 10. They went on an outstanding unbeaten run between week 2 and week 11 of the competition; they also won an impressive 9 out 10 home games. In total they won 15 out of 18 matches, scoring over 30 points on 8 occasions displaying outstanding attacking quality, it really was a joy to watch.

 The post-season was crucial for the Reds if they are going to continue to progress and ensure that they can continue to be successful. It could have potentially been a very bad few months for the franchise with several players out of contract, players in key positions, for example; Digby Ioane – this was a very long, drawn-out process. His future became uncertain in September 2011 and he eventually said in November that he would make a decision on his future after the Australian tour of the northern hemisphere. There was plenty of speculation surrounding his decision due to his impressive performances. He eventually ended the whole saga when a 3-year deal was confirmed at the beginning of December. Also Radike Samo - who was whipped from semi-retirement by coach McKenzie in the summer of 2010 – signed on with the Reds until the end of the 2013 season. Samo has revived his career in 2011, even making a return to the Australia squad to face South Africa in 2011 – over 6 and a half years after making his initial debut.

The Reds also retained less high profile, but arguably equally important players. Beau Robinson stays with the franchise and I think he is going to be a regular in the back row with Samo and Higginbotham. Also back rower Liam Gill stays in Queensland; Gill is a young player but already has 9 Super Rugby caps and is definitely going to develop into a good player. I think the coaching staff definitely have Gill in their future plans and don’t want to lose his talents to another team.

Experienced second rowers Van Humphries, Adam Wallace-Harrison and Rob Simmons sign back on. Rob Simmons will be partnering Horwill in the second row a lot next season but it’s important to have quality backup, and different to other teams, they have experienced backup that’s going to be key to their continued success.

There is however some bad news for Reds fans. Aussie playmaker Quade Cooper will miss a large part of the tournament and is expected to be available for selection against the Brumbies in round 7. Cooper damaged his ACL at the Rugby World Cup during the third place play-off with Wales. He had surgery back in October and coach McKenzie is optimistic; Quade's operation went smoothly with surgery results confirming the circumstances of his injury are typical to what you normally expect from a torn ACL," McKenzie said.
"We're confident he'll return in the quickest time possible and hopefully in time for the Brumbies in early April.”
Stepping in for Cooper will be New Zealand born Michael Harris. The Auckland born utility back has made 9 appearances for the Reds and was awarded Reds Young Player of the Year award for 2011. He is perhaps most recognized for his 20-minute cameo against the Rebels in which he scored 2 fantastic tries and really grabbed his opportunity. Harris admits this is an unfortunate situation bit it’s definitely a chance too; “Quade is a big loss to the team but other guys will step up and it's a big opportunity for myself.”
I really expect another good season from the Reds, the only trouble being that they now have so much expectation weighing down on their shoulders. The franchise has no less than 13 internationally capped players with bags of experience in every position. The thing that sets them apart from most is that they will very rarely make a substitution that lowers the quality or experience of the 15 on the field. Their back row will dominate most in 2012, with Samo’s dynamism and Higginbotham’s work in defence and at the breakdown they are extremely tough to outgun.

Also you have the genius of Will Genia with impeccable service and a snipe that would exploit any lapse in concentration around the fringes. Then further out wide you have the solid Anthony Faingaa and tricky Ben Tapuai, but further on is when it really gets dangerous. You have the clinical Luke Morohan who rarely blows opportunities and then the pacey, agile and world class Digby Ioane to bag tries left right and centre. It really is a machine that is destined to work well.

Problem is if you throw a spanner in the works – the Quade Cooper injury – then things may begin to stutter. As much as I am optimistic that Mike Harris will be more than capable of steering the ship whilst Cooper is recovering – he isn’t Quade. After the form Cooper was in last year he left massive shoes to fill, and there is always that little worry that Harris will fold under the pressure and expectation from the fans. If there is one position on the field where you can’t afford for that to happen, it’s at 10. If Harris is poor then the backline can’t fire, the team will begin to lose their confidence and the season could be dead and buried before King Quade returns. But as I say, I’m optimistic that Harris has enough quality and experience around in the form of Genia and Faingaa that he should be okay.

How can Digby Ioane not be my man to watch in 2012? The man is absolutely scintillating. He picks majestic lines and is powerful and fast enough to burst through them before you realise what has just happened. In 20 Wallaby appearances he’s scored 9 times, which is a decent return at international level; in Super Rugby he will score a try in roughly every 3 games since his career has began (although in recent years I feel he may have been more prolific). Outside defences should ignore the threat of this man at their peril; he’s going to be big again in 2012.

The Reds face a tricky journey to the Waratahs in Week 1. This is going to be another tight one to call; a massive factor in this game is whether or not Mike Harris steps up. He’ll be facing either Halangahu or Barnes and both have proven that they know how to steer their teams to winning positions and are experienced which may be a contributing factor. Other than that the battle in the back row is going to be interesting with Rocky Elsom and Wycliff Palu facing off against Higginbotham and Samo. I say it a lot but whoever wins the battle of the back row will have a massive say in the outcome of this match. I really don’t want to try and predict this one but I’m going to stick my neck out and go with the Waratahs.

Western Force

Coach: Richard Graham
Former Wins: None
Last Season: 13th

Last season was another mediocre season for the Force. Even though they didn’t win until round 5 vs Lions – they had drawn a game and grabbed a couple of losing bonus points, so I thought the Force might finally become the franchise of it’s potential. However they then lost heavily to the Stormers and then lost their next 2 matches, killing their momentum. In my opinion, to be a successful team you need to have a good home record; for example last year the Reds won 9 out of 10 home games, and the Crusaders 8 out of 10, the Force however only managed to win just 1 of their home matches and 5 out of 16 overall. I think the Force always look like ‘a team for next season’ and by that I mean a team that possess quality, but isn’t quite ready to challenge – and the story hasn’t changed.

Young outside back Patrick Dellit was causing somewhat of a stir in July when he signed on for another 2 years. I don’t know an awful lot about Dellit but the coaching staff at the Force seem to be very excited by the 25-year-old. His ability to play both midfield and as an outside back makes him a valuable commodity, he started the final 9 matches of last season taking his total appearances up to 12. Force coach Richard Graham says: "What appealed to me in recruiting Patrick was that he had done a fair apprenticeship at club rugby and I believed that by giving him an opportunity in a professional programme he could improve”
"He worked hard to get an opportunity and his performances warranted continued selection. Given his physical size and attributes as a player he has plenty of potential still to be realised and I think he'll be a consistently good Super Rugby player. "

The Force also secured the signing of centre Winston Stanley, formally of the Auckland Blues. The young New Zealander shows a lot of promise and has a big career ahead of him. He won the Junior World Championship with New Zealand at under 19 and under 20 level; he was also nominated for IRB young player of the year in 2009. Stanley joins some decent midfield players at the Force in the form of Nick Cummins and Gene Fairbanks who have plenty of experience at this level, and is under no illusions: ”I know there are some pretty handy midfielders already there so I have no misgivings about how much work I'll need to do to challenge those guys for a place in the side. Competition is good though and I'm sure it will make all of us better players overall."
One of the things that has attracted Stanley, and some other signings in the off-season is the new $17 million state of the art training facility in Perth. Also Stanley highlights the strong foundations being laid by the forward pack: “The club has a really strong forward pack with plenty of current Wallabies and also boasts some exciting backs which I hope I can add to and be a strong contributor.”
The Force have also signed young Lachlan McCaffrey, an exciting young back rower who will be surrounded by international experience which can only can only bring him along. Also they have moved previous rookie Phoenix Battye into the full squad packing out their stocks in the second row. Two young players who are definitely in to gain experience and build for the future.
The stand out signing for the Force has been Fijian ace Napolioni Nalaga. The winger set the French league on fire upon his arrival in 2007-08 by becoming top try scorer in his first 2 seasons, scoring 16 and 21 tries respectively. He has also been crowned Top 14 Player of the Year and is definitely prolific and is somebody who has to be respected by opposition defences. Nalaga is looking forward to joining up with the Force and the new challenge: "I'm pretty excited about coming to Super Rugby, it is a competition I have been following for a long time,"
“I enjoyed my time in France and I'm thankful for the opportunities Clermont gave me but I'm looking forward to a new challenge as well. I haven't ever been to Perth but I know it is a good place and it will be good for my rugby.”
Coach Graham spent some time looking for a winger to replace the departed David Smith, and is ecstatic to secure such a talented winger: "Nalaga obviously has the ability to score tries but also importantly he has shown that he can quickly gel into a new environment and different styles of rugby on the back of his efforts when he first arrived in France," Graham said.
"Given we lost David (Smith) and his try scoring I wanted a like for like replacement and I'm confident we've achieved that.”
The Force are not blessed with quality in every position, but what they do have is a lot of experience, players who have been around the block a few times. Their forward pack is particularly experienced, which is going to be massive for them next year, with 12 forwards all internationally capped, namely Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock. They also have 8 players who have over 30 Super Rugby appearances. I expect they forward pack to set a very solid platform for their backline next year, Pocock is going to have to disrupt opposition ball on a regular basis to protect their backline from the quality that other teams possess, and I full expect him to do so.
I think the backline may prove to be their downfall in 2012. They do however have some experience particularly in the centre with Gene Fairbanks and Nick Cummins, and at fullback with Cameron Shepherd; but their backline is far from exciting, on paper. I can only really see a significant number of tries coming from Nalaga and they have two rookie fly-half’s in their ranks, which could prove to be a massive problem. I just expect other teams to have far too much quality in the backline for them to deal with.
David Pocock is going to need to continue performing at the highest level to give his team a chance this season. His work at the breakdown is outstanding, and his ability to disrupt and turnover opposition ball could prove to be a thorn in the side for many opposition. He has bags of experience for a 23-year-old, 40 caps for the Wallabies and 55 in Super Rugby, which is going to be crucial. If Pocock is absent in games this season then I believe the Force are going to struggle, he is that important to them.
In their opening match of the Super 15 season the Force face a tricky trip to Canberra to face the Brumbies. The Force have got a good forward pack who may be able to get the upper hand and set a good foundation for the backline. They could prove to be awkward opposition for the Brumbies, and if I had to call I’d say the Force may snatch this one. But the Brumbies have a big point to prove this season so expect them to give everything.
Just as a side note for all my Southern Hemisphere readers that are on twitter, keep an eye out for the hashtag - #rugbyunited - and @trevorlarge. 

It's great what Trevor is doing, bringing rugby fans together from all around the world to discuss and meet fans from other countries. Also there is an event starting on February 8th, in the lead up to the start of the Super 15 season each day will be dedicated to a different franchise to get their fans involved in the #rugbyunited community, which is growing by the day. See their website for details 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: Australia (Part 1 of 3)

The Brumbies

Coach: Jake White
Former Wins: 2001, 2004
Last Season: 13th

Last year the Brumbies were the most disappointing team of season in my view. When you look at all the internationals and quality they had, they really should have done better. In the first game of the season they survived a scare when they nearly gave up an 18 – 3 halftime lead against the Chiefs, but eventually ran out 28 – 20 winners. However things went downhill for the rest of their season, they went on a 6-week winless streak; their season was probably over by week 8. Their away form was to blame, losing 6 out of 7 on the road. They leaked 81 points in a trip to South Africa against the Cheetahs and Sharks respectively. The only real highlight of their season is ending the Reds’ impressive winning run with a 14-22 win in Brisbane. The Brumbies had never finished outside the top 10, until 2011.

If the 2011 season was bad, then the off-season has been worse. Throughout 2011 the Brumbies lost no less than 15 players including; Matt Giteau (Toulon), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs), Rocky Elsom (Waratahs), Mark Chisholm (Bayonne), Salesi Ma’afu (Western Force), Josh Valentine (Western Force) and ex-captain Stephen Hoiles.

There hasn’t been much sign that the Brumbies are trying to replace the quality that they’ve lost; other than the attempting signing of Danie Roussow to replace the departing Mark Chisholm and Mitchell Chapman, which ultimately never came to fruition. Instead they settled for Leon Power. At 2 metres tall, the Kiwi-Aussie impressed whilst playing his rugby for Bay of Plenty in the 2011 ITM Cup.

The Canberra-based franchise also signed Queensland youngsters Ian Prior and Kimami Sitauti to give more depth to the Scrum half and Outside back positions heading in to the 2012 season. Prior is excited to make the switch and become part of an up-and-coming, young setup: “I spoke to Jake (White) earlier in the negotiations and he let me know this was an opportunity for me to be in and around the 22 week in, week out.
It sounds like White has big plans for the 21-year-old. Sitauti knows a few of the other youngsters already at the Brumbies and is excited about reuniting both on the field: “I'm looking forward to playing with some of the younger guys there like Michael Hooper, Colby Faingaa and Robbie Coleman - we've played together at the Sevens and with the Under 20's and had some positive combinations working there.”
So whilst it may seem discouraging for them at least Sitauti has some pre-existing chemistry with some of his ex under-20 teammates.
But what is very daunting for the Brumbies is the prospect of facing the start of the Super Rugby campaign without Wallaby centre Pat McCabe after he had shoulder reconstruction at the end of October. He should be back in action by early April. However McCabe is optimistic and is looking to make his return by March: "I wanted to have the surgery as early as possible because it's a six-month recovery and I wanted to miss as few games as possible for the Brumbies," McCabe told the Canberra Times.
"I have to look at it as an opportunity to improve my skills and physical attributes for when I can play again in March."
I suppose the positive thing is to see McCabe’s commitment to the Brumbies which supporters will find comforting.
The Brumbies board spent most of the off-season playing down reports the coach Jake White was leaving the franchise. First of White was quoted as saying he would put his name forward to re-take his job as coach of the Springboks, White then did a U-turn and a day later said that he would be interested one day, but for now he has a contract with the Brumbies: “I've got a contract here in Canberra, I'm enjoying putting the program together with a great group of staff and players and I'm definitely not leaving."
Then in the same month White was then linked to the vacant England job and indefinitely ruled himself out: “The timing with England is not right for me because I have a contract with the Brumbies and so there can be no speculation about my future."
It doesn’t look good for the Brumbies next year, but it is important that you keep in mind that this is a young team building for the future. The retention of internationally capped Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore was big for the brumbies this year. Their experience will help the young second rows and other props so I’d expect them to be solid up front and possibly dominate a few packs.
I think second row Leon Power is going to thrive in this professional environment (which is new to him). Standing at 2 metres he is definitely going to be a massive help in the lineout situation and weighing in at over 18 stone he’ll add some weight to scrum. He impressed in the ITM Cup with his huge frame and tough style of play, and Brumbies forwards coach was impressed: “I've watched a bit of Leon with the Bay of Plenty this year and what impressed me the most was that he just played for the full 80," Fisher said.
"He's got a good engine and he just worked away, made his tackles, chased the play and worked hard at the ruck so if that's your basis, that you've got a really strong work ethic, then that suits where we want to go.”
I think the Brumbies are going to struggle in the backs next season, and the loss of McCabe is going to impact the midfield massively. Without McCabe, they only have two centres with any Super Rugby experience (Robbie Coleman and Andrew Smith) so it looks like these guys are going to be under pressure to perform – whilst not getting injured! Further down the backline I’m very concerned. Out of the 3 selected wingers only Henry Speight has experience in Super Rugby and neither of the fullbacks have played in the tournament before.
Being inexperienced doesn’t automatically make you a bad player, in many ways the enthusiasm and raw talent of these youngster may provide us with some exciting performances, also the theory of playing against the unknown may mean that the youngsters won’t be intimidated and reputations will count for nothing. But ultimately I feel they are too weak, and lacking in strength in depth out wide to challenge this year.
For the first time in this series I’ve chosen a forward for you all to look out for next season in the shape of hooker Stephen Moore. The 28-year-old has made an impressive 84 appearances in Super Rugby and has 65 caps for the Wallabies, so he’s not short of experience. Moore is impressive in the loose and is very mobile for a front rower, his work at the breakdown is relentless and he is often used as a battering ram to drive through the fringe of the opposition defensive line, with a few tries to boot. His experience is going to be crucial if the Brumbies are going to mount a challenge next year in the Australian conference.
The Brumbies first game of the season sees them at home against former player Salesi Ma’afu and the Western Force. The Force have been busy in the off-season and I think that they might have this one in the bag, but it will be a potential banana skin up against a Brumbies franchise with a point to prove.
Melbourne Rebels

Coach: Damien Hill
Previous Wins: Never Won.
Last Season: 15th

Things didn’t quite go to plan for the newly established Melbourne franchise in their first season in the newly formatted Super 15 which began with a 43 – 0 thrashing at the hands of the Waratahs. They won just 3 games out of 16, winning just once away from home. They took heavy defeats against the Reds, Highlanders, Blues, Bulls, Cheetahs and the Stormers which saw them finishing bottom of the table. Things can only really get better for the youngest franchise in the competition, and it seems the board has been taking steps in the right direction.

The Rebels made 6 new signings in the off-season. Young prop Paul Alo-Emile has joined, he is known for his scrummaging ability and his remarkable athleticism for a man of just under 19 stone. He was a regular for 2 years in the Australian under 20’s squad and was part of the team that finished third in the Under 20’s World Championships in Italy.

Mitch Inman joins from the Western Force. His season in 2011 was hampered by injury however the talent and potential was there for all to see when he managed to take the field. Inman is capped for Australia under 19’s and has represented his country on the 7’s circuit. Many expect him to go on and receive further international honors, but he’ll have to work had to work his way into the starting team at the Rebels first.

Lloyd Johansson is the first Victorian to join the franchise. The powerful inside centre returns to Super Rugby after he left the Reds in 2008 to play rugby for Viadana in Italy. The powerful runner – often described as a wrecking ball – returned to Australia in the 2011 post-season and was handed a spot on the Rebels development tour to the UK, his performances on that tour earned him his contract with the Rebels.

New Zealander James King joins the Rebels next year from the Auckland Blues. King showed a lot of promise in 2009 and was tipped for future All Black appearances, he was then selected for the Blues’ wider training group in 2010 but a shoulder injury ruled him out of contention. King eventually made his Super Rugby debut for the Auckland franchise in 2011. He is noted for his play at the lineout, standing at 6’5” it’s easy to understand why. King will probably be a backup second row because he will be competing for a place against some experienced players.

The Rebels’ marquee signings were that of Wallaby duo James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale. This is a fantastic deal for the franchise; picking up the signature of 2 of the most exciting players in the world is definitely going to enhance your chances of success. They have a combined experience of over 100 Super Rugby caps and over 50 caps for their country.

The arrival of James O’Connor sparked a flurry of statements from Danny Cipriani – the current number 10 – suggesting that he is a new man after his season last year was marred by controversial nights out and sanctions from the franchise. Cipriani then said that he was hoping to play his way back into the England setup – which we now know didn’t happen for the 6 Nations. Cipriani and O’Connor faced off against each other in November when Cipriani played for the Barbarians at 10 with O’Connor opposite him for the Wallabies, many people saw this as the battle for the number 10 jersey at the Rebels, and O’Connor certainly outshone the Englishman that day. However after the game Cipriani stated that he would be the fly half for the 2012 campaign, but he appears to have spoken too soon.

Coach Damien Hill spoke to the press and said: “It's great to hear Danny so enthusiastic but with all respect to him, it's not how we work here,

We select players based on performance, behaviours, the talent we have available, there's going to be some selection challenges ahead.
"It's going to be what's best for the team."

In that same interview Hill had nothing but praise for the Wallaby: “Definitely. He's shown himself now at 10, 12 on the wing and at fullback so he's a talented player," Hill said.
"James' work in the contact was excellent, he's ability to direct the play, his offloads, just his general go-forward was excellent."
This looked pretty ominous for Cipriani, however since then O’Connor has come out to say that he would be happy playing at 12 and thinks with Cipriani at 10 they could form a great partnership.
In 2012 the Rebels will have a better season, they now have a very experienced squad with just one player without a super rugby appearance, they have a very good front 5 with the like of Laurie Weeks and Alister Campbell. They also have some exciting combinations in the backline with Cipriani, O’Connor and possibly Stirling Mortlock (currently sidelined with a knee problem), also with Kurtley Beale picking running lines from fullback it makes for a very exciting prospect.
I am slightly concerned about the fact that they have only named one out-and-out winger in their squad in the form of Cooper Vuna. I appreciate that O’Connor can play wing as can Beale but I feel they’d be wasted out there, Mark Gerrard can also be used on the outside but it wouldn’t be ideal, as is the case with Julian Huxley. Obviously coach Hill knows his team better than me, but it just seems like a confusing decision.
Kurtley Beale has to be the player that excites me the most out of this squad. He picks some sublime running lines and has pace to outrun most, his chemistry with O’Connor is unrivalled and his finishing is second to none. He’s scored 9 tries for the Wallabies and 12 in Super Rugby; He often splits defences up the middle so expect him to enter the fray during some midfield strike moves especially from 15 – but he isn’t really a battering ram, so also look to see him running a hard line off 13 or possibly even wider, where there is more space. He is such a danger when the play breaks up so he’ll be looking to counter attack whenever the opportunity presents itself. He is going to have to perform well if the Rebels are going to be contenders in 2012 – which Beale believes they are.
The Rebels have three warm-up matches against the Chiefs, the Blues and the Crusaders. Hill believes these warm-up matches are crucial: "It's always good to trial against New Zealand teams, they do the basics extremely well," said Hill.
"You end up with a really good indication of where you're at in regards your set piece breakdown and your defence."
The Rebels have a bye in week one, but they host the Waratahs in round 2. They’ll be looking for revenge after last years embarrassing opening fixture, and I think it could happen. It’s a tough one to call in my eyes, but I’m going to go with the Rebels, I think they have a slightly more enterprising backline. The battle in the back row is going to be huge in this one with the likes of Gareth Delve going up against Rocky Elsom, if the Rebels can contain Elsom and provide a test for the Waratahs back row I think we could see the Rebels taking this one.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: New Zealand (Part 3 of 3)

Wellington Hurricanes

Coach: Mark Hammett
Previous Wins: Never Won.
Last Season: 9th

Last season the Hurricanes got off to a bad start and never really recovered. They narrowly lost their first game to the Highlanders, their next game against the Crusaders was cancelled due to the terrible Christchurch earthquake, they then had their bye week. They seemed to have their season back on track after beating the Chiefs in week 4, but then went on a 4 game winless streak. There was almost a mini revival in the middle of the season but an appalling away record cost them, winning just 1 game out of their 7 games away from the Cake-tin.

It’s been a rough few months for the Wellington men, after a mass exodus of quality All Black stars. No less than 5 All Blacks have left in the off-season, Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu left for the Blues, Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear went to the Highlanders and young outside Aaron Cruden went to the Chiefs. This is something that any of the Super 15 teams would find difficult to deal with, but the Hurricanes have been attempting to put a positive twist on this predicament they find themselves in, with chairman Paul Collins saying: If you go through and look at the players the Hurricanes have contracted, we will have a competitive team going forward. It's not about one year, it's about two, three, four and five years.”

My problem with this statement is that if they are building for they future, they should have done everything they could to keep a promising young fly half in Aaron Cruden; however I do appreciate that it’s difficult for a new coach and chief executive to come to a club and convince the big players that they should stay.

So what have the Canes’ done about all these players walking out? Midfielders Tusi Pisi and Tim Bateman are returning to NZ from Japan and have chosen the Hurricanes as their franchise. They are not going to be short of young talent next season either after selecting 3 of the 2011 Junior World Championship winning squad in the shape of Beauden Barrett, exciting outside half TJ Perenara and Brad Shields.

I do bring some good news for Hurricanes fans; it was revealed in September that they have All Black try machine Cory Jane for another season. There was much speculation that he would follow fellow All Blacks through the exit door in Wellington, but this is not the case.

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the season ahead for the Hurricanes but here’s the bright side. All of their outside backs have at least a season’s worth of appearances in Super rugby, so at least the young newcomers in the backline will have experience around them. The return of Tim Bateman - who has 35 Super Rugby appearances – along with Conrad Smith means they will have a very experienced midfield partnership. So I’d expect to see them solid in midfield, which could provide some sort of a platform from which to work. Also the retention of Cory Jane was big for them because they still have a prolific, experienced try scorer.

Victor Vito is going to be a big player for these boys next year. He is the third and final All Black in the team and is going to need to front up and really lead by example in the forwards in 2012. He is surrounded by experience in the back row, but no real quality, so it’s important he performs big to give the Hurricanes a chance.

I think it’s pretty obvious why the Hurricanes might struggle next year. They have only 3 All Blacks in their team; far less than any of the other NZ teams in Super Rugby. They don’t have any noteworthy quality in the front five, but I suppose other than Hore, they didn’t have any last year. But this year I cant see anybody to carry the front five, I think they are going to struggle to provide any sort of platform for the rest of the team to build on. Whilst I think it’s great that they have signed a few talented youngsters, they clearly lack experience. It just seems like the Hurricanes have taken a few steps backwards from last year – however I would gladly be proved wrong.

The big player next year for the Hurricanes will definitely be Conrad Smith. The All Black has massed 66 appearances in Super Rugby and even though he’s only scored 9 tries, that isn’t what counts in 2012. Just by simply being there for the team Smith is going to be massive, surrounded by relative inexperience and youngsters he needs to shine – the 2012 captain quite simply has to step up. What is more impressive is that he has scored 21 tries in 55 caps for the AB’s, proving that he can perform under pressure.

The Hurricanes have two away fixtures against the Blues and the Chiefs respectively, with a home game against the Crusaders wedged in between. I wouldn’t expect to see too much of Cory Jane; I think we’ll see leaders Conrad Smith and Victor Vito because they form part of the spine of the team. Also I think it’s important that new arrival Tim Bateman forms a solid partnership with Smith because if they are to have much chance in 2012 the midfield needs to be solid.

In their first Super Rugby game of 2012 they face a very tricky encounter with last seasons beaten semi-finalists the Stormers in Cape Town. The Stormers possess international quality in abundance. I really don’t expect the Canes’ to get anything out of their game in South Africa and unfortunately I expect this to set the tone for the rest of the year.

So that’s the New Zealand teams covered, I’ll be working on the Australian teams next, expect them to start appearing in about a weeks time.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: New Zealand (Part 2 of 3)

Canterbury Crusaders

Coach: Todd Blackadder
Previous Wins: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008
Last Season: 4th

Last year the tragic earthquake in Christchurch shaped the Crusaders season. The Crusaders were in inspired form and were playing for much more than the game itself, particularly at home where they won 8 of their 9 games. I believe that they would have won the tournament hands down had they not come up against a Reds team that were playing some of the greatest rugby seen since the tournament began.

A lot has been going on at the Crusaders in the off-season, not a lot of it positive. The biggest news in my opinion is the loss of All Black sensation Sonny Bill Williams. SBW has moved to the Chiefs after he claimed that the earthquakes had unsettled him, and he revealed that he wanted to move closer to his mother in Auckland. It’s not all bad for the Crusaders though as they have plenty of quality cover for SBW in the shape of powerhouse Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Tom Marshall and Adam Whitelock; so they wont feel the hit as much as they might have.

However they will feel the pinch during the early rounds of the competition with All Black trio Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Zac Guildford all missing out through injury. Carter’s famous torn groin muscle will keep him out of training until January with Blackadder saying Carter will have extra recovery time (due to his importance) don’t expect to see Carter until mid March. Crusaders and All Black captain Richie McCaw is expected to be out of training until February after undergoing surgery on the foot that nearly jeopardized his chances of leading NZ to world cup glory. And if that wasn’t enough, Guildford will miss the Crusaders opening Super Rugby fixture against the Blues due to suspension. The 22-year-old was handed a 4 week suspension by the NZRU meaning he will miss the Crusaders’ 3 warm-up fixtures and their opening game. These are massive losses for the franchise and it will be interesting to see how they go in the opening stages of the tournament.

After it was confirmed that the Crusaders would go another season without playing at AMI Stadium it has been announced that their temporary home – Rugby League Park – will be ready and worthy of hosting such top class sports by their second home game of the season against the Cheetahs on March 24th.

Even though this side will be without three key All Blacks, underestimate them at your peril. Without those players they still have no less than 9 AB’s in their squad and have the likes of Robbie Fruean and Sean Maitland in their ranks. I do still expect the Crusaders to look strong out wide next season, with the likes of Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland and (when he returns) Zac Guildford they have plenty of finishers; and with the likes of Fruean battering his way through opposition midfields they will be a tricky team to stop when they get behind the first line.

However I think the injuries to Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are going to massively effect their form in the early parts of the season. Carter will especially be missed as there is no obvious replacement for him, and definitely nobody with his quality who can put on the 10 shirt. In the back row there is cover for McCaw with the likes of Kieran Reid, so he perhaps wont be as sorely missed.

Robbie Freuan is definitely my player to watch from Canterbury next season. He impressed me massively with his performances for them in the ITM Cup last season. In 2010 he was joint top try scorer in the cup and was named Player of the tournament in the same year. The battering ram had a tremendous Super Rugby campaign last season and now with SBW out of the picture he has a real opportunity to stake a claim for an All Blacks cap, it’s only a matter of time.

The Crusaders have 3 warm up matches prior to the beginning of the 2012 season against the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Rebels. During these games expect to see them looking for cover for Carter and McCaw. Also look for big performances from Israel Dagg who will be looking to build on a fantastic 2011, and look to see the Franks brothers looking to sure up their set piece, particularly in the scrum. Their first game of the 2012 Super 15 tournament is away at Eden Park to the Blues. I think the Blues will have too much for the Crusaders, this is the kind of game where you need all your big guns firing, the Crusaders won’t even have 3 of their big guns. They’ll be up against it.

Otago Highlanders

Coach: Jamie Joseph
Previous Wins: Never won.
Last Season: 8th

Last season the Highlanders took me by surprise with 8 wins and 8 losses. After they took advantage of a Ma’a Nonu’s red card and dogged out a surprise win against the Hurricanes in the first game of the season they then went on to beat the Chiefs and the Bulls to get off to a flyer. In the middle of the season they put another good string of results together, winning 4 in a row. But ultimately a disappointing end to the season meant they missed out on a place in the play-offs with the Blues and Crusaders playing so well.

The off-season has been relatively quiet at the Highlanders in comparison to some of the other clubs in the Super 15 but there has been some activity. They have secured the vastly experienced All Black Andrew Hore, who was told that his services were no longer required by the Hurricanes so he has returned to his native Otago and signed a one-year contract with the Highlanders.

Just a month after the signing of Hore, the Southerners secured another All Black in the shape of wing Hosea Gear. When Gear missed out on a spot in the All Blacks World Cup squad it was widely suggested that he was going to leave New Zealand and look to play his rugby elsewhere but instead he has signed a one-year contract with the team based in Dunedin. It seems that Gear is looking to regain a spot in the All Black squad, with Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph saying about Gear:he is committed to wanting to get back into the All Blacks and is excited about bringing his family down here and playing for the team." So I think we can expect to see a big effort from him in 2012 and some big performances.

But the big news in Otago is the shock arrival of James Haskell, after Highlanders Chief Executive Roger Clark claimed the move was pretty much dead in the water. Haskell has expressed a desire to play Super Rugby and claimed that it came as a complete surprise. The back rower has won 39 caps for England but you have to feel that this move to New Zealand will severely hinder his chances of gaining many more. The 6’4” dynamo is no stranger to life in Dunedin because it is where England were based during the Rugby World cup and says: “The World Cup was a great introduction to life in Dunedin for me and the quiet professional atmosphere is perfect to help me develop my game.”

The 26 year old will join the Highlanders after he has finished a period at Japanese club Ricoh Black Rams; and once he has completed a season at the Highlanders he will return to his original club London Wasps.

On the topic of the back row, this is where I expect the highlanders to be strong in 2012. They have included 7 back rowers in their 30-man squad, so even if there isn’t much strength in depth, at least there’s depth. I can’t decide if Joseph is going to throw Haskell straight into the squad, but if he does they will have a very experienced back row. Adam Thomson and Nasi Manu have a combined 85 Super Rugby appearances and a combined 63 international caps between Haskell and Thomson. This would be a very dynamic back row and one that most teams in the league would be more than happy to have.

The Highlanders midfield concerns me. It is very inexperienced, plenty of potential, but very inexperienced. I expect them to start with the most experienced centre in their squad Tamati Ellison who was capped for the All Blacks and then mysteriously left for Japan in order to secure his families financial future. He has plenty of talent but it worries me that he hasn’t played against quality opposition since he left NZ in 2010. Alongside him I expect to see the talented Siale Piutau, who has played a seasons worth of Super Rugby. I just feel that when they come up against quality midfields’ such as the one that the Chiefs now possess it will just be too much for them, and they will simply be outclassed.

Keep an eye out for All Black winger Hosea Gear in 2012. He has great potential and is a classy finisher. He is looking to make his way back into the All Blacks and after missing out on the RWC I think he feels he has a point to prove next season. There will be a massive effort from Gear next season and look for him to get involved at every opportunity and be as clinical as possible.

The Highlanders have 2 away warm up matches against the Crusaders and the Blues, with a home warm up against the Hurricanes in the middle. These games will be important for the likes of Tamati Ellison in order to allow him to get used to the better quality of rugby played in the tournament. Also James Haskell will be learning a lot from these games, as it is a completely different game to any type of game he’s played before. Their opening game of the Super 15 is against the Chiefs. I’ll be backing the Chiefs on this one because I think they will dominate in the backs. But it will be interesting to see if they can outmuscle the Chiefs upfront, if they can then an upset may be on the horizon.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Super Rugby Preview: New Zealand (Part 1 of 3)

In the run up to the start of the Super Rugby season I'll be looking at all the teams involved, what's been going on in the off-season, assessing how I think they'll perform and looking at their opening fixtures of the season.

Auckland Blues

Coach: Pat Lam
Previous Wins: 2003
Last Season: 2011 – 4th (Best Since 03’)

Last season it was always an exciting game when the Blues were involved. The men from Auckland never had a problem scoring tries, their problem was preventing the opposition from crossing the whitewash; most highlighted perhaps by their 42 – 31 win over the Lions in round 3, where the showed how dangerous they can be particularly in broken play but also how vulnerable they can be at times. The Blues showed they can score tries by scoring over 30 points 6 times in their 16 games.

Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu have arrived in Auckland from the Hurricanes. Alby Mathewson might feels slightly aggrieved because he left the Hurricanes to escape the shadow of Weepu and get more game time. But there is no doubting the impact that Nonu will bring to the centre, everybody knows about his dynamism and sheer physical strength but it will be interesting to see if teams have figured out a way to stop the man from Wellington. Also youngster Gareth Anscombe has come into the main squad this season after spending a year in the Blues wider training group. And the 2009 Blues player of the year – Rudi Wulf – has returned from a season at French club Toulon.

But this season they will have to do without the services of former All Blacks Luke McCallister and Joe Rokocoko; and playmaker Stephen Brett is Japan bound.

However Coach Pat Lam believes that the squad he has selected for this seasons Super 15 is more than capable of doing the job, going as far as saying; “This is definitely the strongest squad I’ve named in my time with the Blues.” I am inclined to agree that the Blues do have a very good squad.

The Blues have also expressed their interest in Graham Henry. They’ve made it public that they want the former All Black coach to join them but haven’t revealed what role they wish to give him. After Henry’s position with Wales ended in 2003 he joined the Blues as a technical advisor. It’s also worth noting the Henry has a close relationship with Blues coach Pat Lam.

I expect the Blues to be strong in the pack as they always are; when you combine stalwarts such as Tony Woodcock, Ali Williams and Kevin Mealamu with the likes of Jerome Kaino, Luke Braid and Anthony Boric it’s difficult to find a weakness up front. And there is no rest bite behind the scrums either; I think Ma’a Nonu will compliment the creative Benson Stanley really well in the centre and with the return of dangerman Rudi Wulf combined with the prolific Rene Ranger there seems to be potential tries coming from everywhere.

It’s difficult to find any conceivable weaknesses with this squad. If I was forced to find something I would be slightly concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the signing of Piri Weepu. Pat Lam has been open in revealing that the are unsure about what position to play Weepu, at Fly Half or Scrum Half.  Also as I stated Alby Matthewson left the Hurricanes to escape Weepu so his confidence may be knocked before the season even begins. And finally it’s worth noting that if Weepu sustains an injury then the season will fall on to the young shoulders of Gareth Anscombe and then things may unravel for the team from Auckland.

Rene Ranger is my Blues player to watch for the 2012 season. Last year he displayed outstanding finishing qualities scoring 8 tries in 15 appearances. It is testament to the form of the All Blacks that he hasn’t had more caps for the national squad, but nonetheless is a very dangerous player. Keep an eye out for him next year I’m sure he’ll be a regular in the highlight reels.

The blues have two warm up games in February 2012 against the Hurricanes and the Highlanders. During these games I’d expect them to rotate the halfbacks and give Gareth Anscombe a run out to help the coaching staff make their decisions. The Blues first game of the campaign is against rivals, the Crusaders at Eden Park, a very difficult one to call.

Waikato Chiefs

Coach: Dave Rennie
Previous Wins: Never won.
Last season: 10th

The Chiefs finished disappointingly last season; with a decent backline and a dangerous back three they failed to really put the better sides under any real pressure. With the combination of poor home form – losing 3 out of 7 - and even worse away form – winning only 2 out of 8 – it was never likely that the men from Waikato were ever going to challenge for the playoffs.

The Chiefs have been pretty busy in the off-season, but all the talk has been surrounding the arrival of All Black pin-up boy Sonny Bill Williams. It became apparent that SBW was unsettled at the Crusaders and a move for him looked imminent. Chiefs CEO Gary Dawson said: "This is outstanding news for Chiefs fans. He is a world-class athlete who brings with him a unique set of skills and qualities.” And as neutral I’m excited to see how he goes with fellow All Black Richard Kahui in the Chiefs midfield.

The Chiefs have also landed another All Black in the shape of the promising Aaron Cruden. It’s difficult to believe that Cruden is still only 22 when he has achieved so much already. He captained the All Blacks under 20’s team to Junior World Championship success in 2009 and was named IRB Junior Player of the year in the same season. Cruden made his Super Rugby debut for the Hurricanes in January 2010 and was capped by the All Blacks in June that same year. This is definitely a signing for Chiefs fans to get excited about, he has a bright future ahead of him and having the experience and skill of Kahui and SBW outside him will only help him along.

It’s also worth noting that second row Romana Graham will miss the first 6 weeks of the Super Rugby season after being found guilty of head-butting Sean Maitland during the final of the ITM Cup last season. Graham will miss the Chiefs 3 warm up matches and the first 3 Super Rugby matches.

Coach Dave Rennie has been brought in to replace Ian Foster after Rennie coached the New Zealand under 20’s to three consecutive Junior World Championships. His links with the Under 20’s may explain the signing of baby All Black duo Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick. Coach Rennie speaks very highly of the two: Sam and Brodie were two of the best performers at the U20 World Cup and we are rapt they have committed to the Chiefs. They both have big tickers, a fantastic work ethic and will hopefully wear the Chiefs jersey for many years to come.”

The Chiefs are going to have a very dangerous backline next season. SBW is often the key to unlock any defence and when they get in behind opposition they have flyers in the shape of Tim Nanai-Williams, Lelia Masaga and sevens international Declan O’donnell who are more than capable of finishing off opportunities. I expect to see Kahui running lots of support lines and to be the linkman between SBW and the wide men when the gain line is breached. I’m excited to see if Aaron Cruden is going to be able to prove himself this season as I expect him to start most of the games. Also keep an eye out for young Maritino Nemani. He’s a 20-year-old Fijian speedster who has been snapped up after just 3 provincial games for Hawkes Bay.

The thing that worries me about this team is that they lack strength in depth in the forwards. Even though they have so much quality in the backline, it doesn’t count for anything if they don’t get the ball. They lack international quality with only Liam Messam standing out as a genuine All Black. With 1 out of 3 of the props uncapped in Super Rugby, 2 out of the 4 second rows uncapped and 1 out of the 2 number 8’s uncapped you have to worry about what happens when the injuries strike, which they inevitably will. A lot of pressure will fall on young inexperienced shoulders, which could be the downfall of the Chiefs this year. But nonetheless I expect a good season from the Chiefs but can’t really see them threatening the playoffs with the forwards they have.

My player to watch this year for the Chiefs has to be Sonny Bill Williams. He scored 5 tries in 15 appearances for the Crusaders last season, but his game isn’t about scoring tries. SBW attracts defenders because he is such a dangerous player, which in turn creates space for the players around him, and his ability to offload the ball out of almost any tackle makes him the key to most defensive structures. However I think we’ll see him used as a decoy runner a fair bit in 2012 because of the fact that he attracts so much attention of would-be tacklers. Expect him to set up a lot of tries for the players outside him and to bag a few of his own.

The Chiefs warm up matches are away to the Rebels and the Highlanders before returning home to face the Hurricanes. During these expect them to be giving everyone a run out, and a lot of the younger players plenty of game time. I’d also look out for an interesting battle for the number 9 jersey between the experienced Brendon Leonard and young Tawera Kerr-Barlow who made 11 appearances for the Chiefs last season and will be looking to establish himself as a regular starter in 2012.

The Chiefs face the Highlanders in their first Super Rugby clash of 2012 at home in Hamilton. This is going to be a tricky opener for the Waikato team, particularly in the forwards against some experienced and quality players. If the backline does get some good ball they should score some tries, but the forwards will need to step up.

My next blog "Super Rugby Preview: New Zealand (Part 2 of 3)" will be posted in the next day or two.