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.

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