THE TIGHT FIVE - what we might see from the New Zealand Conference in 2014
James Mortimer 25 Dec 2013 Getty Images
The chasing four to up the head-to-head stakes
The Chiefs are back-to-back champions, and the Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes will throw their respective kitchen sinks looking to claim the scalp of the current benchmark team.
The rivalry between the Crusaders is notable, but the reality is the Chiefs, in their two years as champions, have established an imposing 14-4 record against sides in their own country. But while the win loss ledger tells a tale, those results have either been nail biting or seen the opposition rack up healthy scores of their own.
For all of the Chiefs record breaking feats over recent years, it is their stranglehold over teams in in their own conference that have defined their championship, and a five and seven match win streak over New Zealand sides over the two campaigns also speaks volume of the side's consistency.
The Crusaders will be on a mission
Coach Todd Blackadder has continued a remarkable record where the Crusaders have now racked up 12 straight appearances in the Super Rugby Finals Series, enough for any other mentor or franchise, but a team that wrote the manual on winning the title has struggled of late.
Next year will be a big one for the return of Richie McCaw will be notable for a number of reasons, primary of which is the man himself admitting he was excited about a full Super Rugby campaign in some time. Equally it could be close to his last, as one cannot imagine the All Blacks captain having a full workload leading into late 2015.
But that is in the future, and alongside McCaw will be the game’s best player in Kieran Read, and a cadre of All Blacks including Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Dominic Bird and of course the mercurial Israel Dagg – a clutch of stars many of whom have never tasted Super Rugby success.
Time for the real Hurricanes to stand up
Conrad Smith will return to skipper the Wellington based team after a break from rugby at the end of 2013, and his presence alongside a fit Cory Jane will be crucial for the leadership of the team.
It is however the growth of the likes of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles – all comfortable within the ranks of the All Blacks in the last 12 months – that has the side brimming with potential even if so far the side has a hint of ‘under the radar’ about them.
Coles however will be working alongside other Test players, with Ben Franks up for his second season in Canes colours, while Jeremy Thrush is an All Blacks and Ardie Savea among the players to watch this year. If the Hurricanes can put aside historical theory that they have a weaker pack than the heavyweights, they could threaten.
Can we finally use the word dynasty?
The Chiefs will be chasing a term in sports called a ‘three-peat’, something associated with American sporting leagues, but a tag that is a handy one to earn if you are seeking a dynasty.
Semantics could suggest other terms, but the reality is that to potential dominate a competition like Super Rugby for three straight campaigns is the mark of a special team.
Winning their second title not only silenced remaining critics, but ensured they emerged as the real kingpin of the New Zealand Conference, no mean feat considering their neighbours. The Chiefs have all the tools to win another crown, and it will take a special effort to decipher what has become a reliable championship code.
Will the real Highlanders please stand up?
In recent years the proud team from the Deep South has assumed many guises, from dark horses, to potential championship contenders, from early season dominators to late campaign crashers.
Add to this an incredibly physical style that looked the goods but wasn’t sustainable, through to a heady recruitment policy which saw the team stacked with All Blacks, and as a consequence the side will have plenty to prove, especially to themselves – for the men of the South are a reflective lot who take losing hard.
Having one of the best players in the world in the backline in Ben Smith will help, as will a recruitment policy that has adopted a remarkably similar approach to the Chiefs, attracting hard workers while investing in local talent. Only a full season will tell if this is the ingredient for Highlanders success.
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