Brad Thorn makes a break for the Highlanders against the
Chiefs during their pre-season match at Owen Delany Park in
Taupo earlier this month. (Photo by Joel Ford/Getty Images)
We're off again, or at least we have a few games from
Australia to whet our 2013 rugby interest.
All sorts of hoopla will come out of the Sunburnt Country
about the 18th chapter of Super rugby but classifying this
opening round as a marketing dream will be a step too far
even for our transtasman cronies.
Super rugby is billed as a massive tri-nations provincial
series. But tonight looks more like an event for sparklers
rather than any whizz-bang skyrockets and trumpets flourish.
The Rebels against the Force in Melbourne. Yep that's right,
the 13th placed side from last year against the 14th in a
city without any significant rugby pedigree.
Perhaps there is a bit of missionary zeal going on here from
Sanzar while they know more Kiwis will probably be tuned to
the slap-and-thrash 20-over cricket between New Zealand and
An early start in Australia allows them to host the Lions
tour matches and three tests when they lob in late May with
an early July finish.
For those here and in South Africa, who have been yearning
for the return of the oval code, the action starts next
weekend with some hefty local derbies.
Last year's runners up, the Sharks, open up with an away game
against the Cheetahs but nothing like the long distance
travel which damaged their valiant late charge for the title.
Regular frontliners the Bulls begin at home in Pretoria while
the Republic's new franchise, the Kings, take their first
competition steps when they host the visiting Force.
Those of us who believe the New Zealand conference is the
toughest group by some distance will get a first glimpse of
that action in Dunedin where the Highlanders' heavy
recruitment will be tested by the champion Chiefs.
The Highlanders have been dented with international centre
Tamati Ellison unlikely to play any round-robin games after
shoulder surgery and wing Declan O'Donnell suffering
But they will be looking for an early return from the
investment in Ma'a Nonu, Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock who
have joined a collection of their All Black colleagues.
Andrew Hore will captain the side when his ban is lifted
while World Cup five-eighths Colin Slade is making another
comeback attempt after his fearful injury run.
The Highlanders will be fit - Jamie Joseph and his staff will
have seen to that - but they may not have quite the
loose-forward or three-quarter sting to be the real deal.
Discounting the Chiefs is not a smart move, not after their
surge to the 2012 title under the new coaching group led by
The bulk of their star quality remains, except for Sonny Bill
Williams, while there have been several interesting gains and
so far, they have avoided the injury curse from last year.
Bundee Aki offers midfield enterprise while fit props Toby
Smith, Ben Afeaki and halfback Brendon Leonard widen the
selection choices and Ross Filipo brings experience.
Can the Chiefs repeat? They can because they understand what
it takes to win their competition and have a coaching staff
attuned to those needs.
Already shorn of the feisty talents of Cory Jane, the
Hurricanes rock up on their home ground for an opening
challenge from the Blues.
They have two of the nation's most promising backs, TJ
Perenara to guide their prospects, senior soldier Conrad
Smith to mentor from midfield, and a bunch of scrappers and
raw talent like Ardie Savea in the pack.
Ben Franks' shift north to the front row should give the
Canes better stability but they need to convince more with
their all round clout and set piece certainty.
The Blues have a swag of players new to Super rugby garnished
by a coaching crew awash in experience.
John Kirwan has been in international battlefields with his
backs coach Grant Doorey, Mick Byrne has been with the All
Blacks for some time while Graham Henry led them for more
than 100 tests.
The mesh of those elements will fascinate as the Blues search
for some redress from the troubles which have tormented the
franchise for too long.
The shift into fulltime pro rugby will be a huge move for
many. They have the skills but need to apply them
consistently over what will be a very demanding campaign.
Finding the right blend between a coaching group who have
been there done that and players starting their careers will
be a huge challenge.
Getting a solid start in the series will help but the initial
segment is rugged - the Hurricanes, Crusaders then the Bulls.
As strange as the series' start seems this weekend, it is
more bizarre for the Crusaders.
They have to wait until the third round, on March 1, before
they enter the competition and then play 10 successive games,
including a trip to South Africa, before their second rest.
It is a rugged schedule but this squad is used to adversity
and even without their supreme commander Richie McCaw until
the last three rounds, you suspect they will find a way to
The heavily decorated franchise has not won the title since
They made the final two years ago but that is slim pickings
for coach Todd Blackadder and a group used to winning.
Got a lazy dollar? Bung it on the Crusaders and Chiefs to
qualify out of the NZ conference.
- Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald