Sunday, 12 February 2012

Super 15 Preview - New Zealand Conference pt. 2

Otago Highlanders

Consistently, New Zealand's also-rans. Each season they appear capable of causing a few surprises, yet struggle to maintain any form over the course of the tournament. They have recruited well, bringing hardened hooker Andrew Hore and the devastating Hosea Gear from the Hurricanes, as well as James Haskell, who could well prove to be a revelation in the southern hemisphere. 

A backline featuring Colin Slade, Siale Piutau, new addition Tamati Ellison, Kade Poki, the aforementioned Gear, and Ben Smith should really be challenging for progress from the conference, but a questionable pack means it's likely they will once again be failing to challenge for honours. They have some good players in the front eight, but there is a clear lack of depth. The updated format of Super 15 means the season is considerably more attritional, and those teams who do not have a decent bench are likely to suffer at various points throughout the season, and this, unfortunately, includes the Highlanders.

They will beat some heavyweights, and expect to see some exciting rugby when they meet the Chiefs in round one, but these boys will find themselves staggering towards the end of what is due to be another frustrating season for Otago's finest.

Player to watch: Tamati Ellison

A silky smooth centre/wing/full back, who's had previous Super 15 experience with the Hurricanes. Capped for the All Blacks, his return to this level is long overdue - has deceptive turn of pace and has something of the Conrad Smith's about him. It all looks very easy when he has his hands on the ball, and expect Ellison to provide some direction and calmness alongside Slade and the dancing feet of one of last season's shining lights, Siale Piutau.

Waikato Chiefs

Losing finalists in 2009, the Chiefs seem to have fallen by the wayside over the past two seasons, failing to realise the potential that their squad suggests. With Ian Foster gone, Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith are now tasked with trying to light the tinderbox that could well see the Chiefs finally take it up a couple of notches and push on to challenge the Crusaders, and with the squad currently possessed in Waikato, it looks like 2012 may well be the year.

Despite losing Sivivatu, Donald, and the briefly resurgent Tana Umaga, the Chiefs have recruited well, bringing in Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams. If they can keep Richard Kahui fit, expect a centre partnership that will be tearing down trees every weekend and can hopefully provide the explosive Lelia Masaga with all the ammunition he needs to continue running in the tries.

Any doubts over the threat of this team mainly stem from their frustratingly inconsistent pack. The tight five at times gets bullied off the park, leaving a back line oozing ability to kick their heels and make the most of whatever scraps come their way. The likes of Liam Messam, Craig Clark, Scott Waldrom, and the powerful Friz Lee will need to step up if the Chiefs want to push for honours.

Despite this, I have a sneaky suspicion that this could well be season of the Chiefs realising that undoubted potential. The pack should hopefully overcome their difficulties now Wayne Smith is in the camp, so expect this team to be dark horses. My (outside) tip for the title.

Player to watch: Lelia Masaga

Probably the most dangerous winger in the Super 15, Masaga has deceptive power for someone of his height, and also a serious pair of rocket boosters. His ability to beat players one on one is superb, and every year seems to have his own try of the season competition, regularly running in some extraordinary five pointers. With fellow twinkle toes Tim Nanai-Williams in support, the Chiefs have some serious firepower out wide.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Super 15 Preview - New Zealand Conference pt.1

Auckland Blues

Perennial underachievers, this year looks like they may finally make the step-up, with shrewd backline signings Ma'a Nonu, Pirri Weepu, and the return of Rudi Wulf. My only doubt over their backs, as talented as they look, is whether or not Weepu really has what it takes to provide the necessary direction at 10, or if it will be yet another season of flattering to deceive. Weepu is a classy 9 but a standard fly half, and this I fear will be their undoing. A pack including the likes of Kaino, Braid, Williams, Boric, Mealamu and the barnstorming Charlie Faumuina will always provide good front-foot ball, but whether this will equate to tries is another question entirely. Rene Ranger will no doubt have another season of two good games/one bad, and whilst a centre partnership of Benson Stanley and Nonu will take some doing to get past, with Weepu alongside it lacks options.

Expect the Blues to start, as ever, strongly, but fade as the business end of the season is approached. Surprising to say, but I do not think they will make it past the conference, making it another year of disappointment.

Player to watch: Charlie Faumuina

An absolute bull of a prop, who invariably leaves a trail of bodies behind when he gets his hands on the ball. Expect All Blacks recognition soon.

Canterbury Crusaders

The classy Crusaders will always be in the mix for the title, and expect this season to be no different. An ever-strong front 8 will provide ample base for Carter (once fit) and rookie Tyler Bleyendaal to get those outside him firing, and it looks like it will be a case of who can stop them....the answer to which is not entirely clear!

They will only get stronger as the tournament progresses, with the return of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw provoking much envy and jealous looks for Todd Blackadder from his opposition coaches, although McCaw may have his work cut out getting his 7 shirt back from the hugely impressive Matt Todd. It would not surprise me if McCaw finds himself at 6, with Todd continuing where he left off in 2011. This pairing, along with Read, the barrelling Wyatt Crockett and the resurgence of Tom Donnelly mean the Crusaders are in safe hands up front for this season.

So, the big question is, do they have a weakness? For me, the main issue will be in the centres. Robbie Fruean is a serious game breaker but lacks the more subtle skills required to pick the lock of the tightest of defences, whilst the return of Ryan Crotty in place of Sonny-Bill Williams means the Crusaders will be down on their offloading capabilities, instead having a more a steady hand at 12. Will this pairing provide a cutting edge? We shall see.

Progression for the Crusaders is inevitable, and I expect them to finish top of the New Zealand conference. They will take some beating and are once again going to be the team to beat.

Player to watch: Matt Todd

Maybe an obvious call, but this guy has the lot. Speed, hands, is imperious in the tackle and his work at the breakdown is already up there with the best. Another destined for the All Blacks this season, and if he does indeed push McCaw to 6, then you know he must have something special.

Hello and Welcome.....

The Rugby Site - A new blog providing the very best in match previews and reviews, player analysis and much more.

To kick things off, there will be a Super 15 2012 season preview coming shortly, looking at each team's strengths and weaknesses, as well as predictions for the forthcoming season. 

I hope you enjoy the blog.

The Rugby Site.