Can they win it? The pro-bookies guide to the NZ Conference in Super Rugby
James Mortimer 21 Jan 2014 Getty Images
Not only did they claim the first ever top-tier domestic rugby championship triple (Leinster came close in the North, they won three in four), but the Crusaders under Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans carved their names into the record books with three straight Finals won in enemy territory.
The Chiefs, as indomitable as they are, have won both Finals at home.
But for now, we will go with that statement being an annoying semantic and irrelevant to a quest that – if successful – will see the Waikato based franchise becomes the only team to equal the streak achieved by the most successful franchise in Super Rugby.
Delicious irony however presents the scenario that the Crusaders, still the biggest kid on the block based on All Blacks representation, are in with a favourable chance to make a stand in 2014 based on their heavy Test representation in the forwards.
Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Dominic Bird, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn and Wyatt Crockett represent a forward offensive line that in fantasy rugby would come close to guaranteeing a crown.
Such heavily fancied squads haven’t done the business in the past however, but the wounds suffered by the seven-time champions, many of late thanks to the tomahawks of the Chiefs, will ensure a grim and determined team based in the Canterbury region this year.
While an All Blacks laden Crusaders side will be on more than a few lips, their cousins to the South are a different proposition.
Head coach Jamie Joseph will be a figurehead possessed this year, knowing that in 2011 and 2012 he was able to help genesis a Super Rugby start that many championship winning sides were never able to achieve (7 from their first 9 in both seasons), but late campaign fades, perhaps due to the muscular style preferred by the Highlanders, prevented berths in the Super Rugby Finals Series.
The star studded roster of last year doesn’t exist to the same degree, but the presence of IRB World Player of Year nominee Ben Smith isn’t a bad thing, as his namesake but no relation Aaron in the halves, alongside Fumiaka Tanaka and a couple of wily individuals at first five-eighth in Lima Sopoaga and Willie Ripia.
Local representative levels have increased, as has the number of grafters, but this is a formula that worked well within the environs of Hamilton so one can only wait and potentially hope.
The Chiefs glory has been celebrated by most, but without implying negative feelings, the Blues will not be happy that their close neighbours have so effectively hogged the limelight in the last few years.
This upcoming mission is different, as the Blues boast a boisterous and blockbusting roster that suggests a title will arrive in Auckland soon.
Wait, haven’t we heard this before?
Part and parcel of being among of one the richest rugby development areas in the world means that many Blues teams have looked to have the weapons to win Super Rugby, but newly capped All Blacks – Piutau, Saili, Halai and Luatua – among returning big guns – Woodcock, Nonu and Kaino – ensures the expectations will be at usual levels.
Expectation is something that often gives way to excitement in the capital, but to be honest, one would doubt the Hurricane supporters would have it any other way.
Their team, some say the French of the domestic stage, others say the heart palpitation causers of New Zealand Rugby, has always seemed to have the sheer firepower to win Super Rugby, but even that amazing foggy Final wasn’t able to deliver the championship to Wellington.
Conrad Smith, rested and recuperated after his extended leave, will link up with the most illustrious back division the Canes have wielded since those heady days when the likes of Cullen and Lomu were celebrated.
Perenara, Barrett, Smith, Jane and Julian Savea – the playmakers and the bus have the fists to punch their way to the top.
There is however an ugly side to the New Zealand Conference in Super Rugby.
The division is so competitive that one side often ends up being cannibalised in a ruthless group where name-for-name, the Kiwi outfits could be the most talented of the tournament.
But this counts for little with numerous derbies exposing the pretenders.
The Chiefs will be chasing a lovely continuation of their Super Rugby romance, but four other regions will looks to be spoil what is becoming quite the party in the streets of Hamilton.
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