SUPER 14 PREVIEW - ROUND ONE
9 February, 2010
Investec Bank Super 14 Preview 2010 – Round One
Press Release - Australian Rugby Union
And so we start again. Three countries, the 14 best teams and 94 matches, spread across 16 weeks as the search begins to find the fifth and final Investec Bank Super 14 champion. With expansion confirmed for 2011 as the Super Rugby concept steams into its 16th year, and the Melbourne Rebels set to join the party, this year’s opening round provides a fore-runner to what is to come next season, when an additional full round of local derbies will added to the Super Rugby menu. In the short-term, that means two spicy entrees to the main feast for Australian viewers on the opening weekend, with the Brumbies visiting the Western Force in Perth on Friday night, before the NSW Waratahs travel to the Queensland Reds on Saturday.
Friday 12 February
Blues v Hurricanes
At North Harbour Stadium, North Shore City
Kick-off: 7.35pm (local), 5.35pm (AEDT)
Referee: Stuart Dickinson
Prior to the final season of the Super 12 in 2005, the Blues had never lost to the Hurricanes. Their record in the five years since is nowhere near as flash. Last year’s 45-27 thumping at the Cake Tin was the ‘Canes fourth win over their traditional rivals from the north in the last five. Two of those were achieved in Auckland through 2005 and 2006. The Blues’ only win in the last five years was a 19-17 success at the most recent meeting in Auckland two years ago. That night, All Black wing Hosea Gear scored two tries for the visitors, the Blues managed just one through lock Anthony Boric in reply, but the Hurricanes still came up short by two. The Hurricanes out-scored the Blues again last year; six tries to four – with two each being scored by midfield backs Ma’a Nonu and Tamati Ellison. Tackle efficiency will have been a major priority for Blues coach Pat Lam in the off-season as he prepared for his second season at the helm. The ninth placed Blues scored more tries (47) than every team but the third-placed Hurricanes during the preliminary phase of last season’s competition, but such was their defensive frailty; only the Lions and the Queensland Reds leaked more than the 46 tries that the Blues conceded. Nor was home advantage a positive for the Blues during Lam’s first year, with four of seven lost. This included the Blues’ second visit to North Harbour Stadium of the year, which saw history created when the Queensland Reds grabbed their first Super Rugby success in the City of Sails courtesy of a 31-24 victory. The Blues last visited the semi-finals in 2007 under the stewardship of current ARU High Performance boss David Nucifora. Their hopes for this year took a hit in the pre-season when a second ruptured Achilles tendon put paid to Ali Williams for the campaign, shortly after the All Black second-row had been named as the team’s vice captain. The Hurricanes have no such concerns as they head north to kick off coach Colin Cooper’s eighth and final season at the helm. The ‘Canes have made a final (2006) and four semi-finals during his time. They start this campaign with a new captain, with All Black hooker Andrew Hore having taken over from his Test colleague Rodney So’oialo. If the visitors have a potential vulnerability at all; it is their overall record first-up. The Hurricanes have won just four of 14 on the opening weekend in Super Rugby, twice being conquered at that stage by the Blues, which includes a 60-7 towelling at home in 2002. Their other opening night defeat against the Blues was in the inaugural Super Rugby match in 1996 at Palmerston North, when the visiting team prevailed 36-28. That history makes this clash a fitting encounter with which to kick off the fifth and final Super 14, before the competition expands to 15 with the entry of the Melbourne Rebels next year.
Last Year – Hurricanes 45, Blues 27 at Wellington
Home & Away!
Q: When is a home ground NOT a home ground?
A: When you are the Blues playing against the Chiefs at North Harbour back in 1997. At that time, the North Harbour NPC team was part of the Chiefs’ franchise, hence the inaugural Super Rugby match at the newly commissioned stadium saw the Blues as the ‘away’ side during their 26-16 victory. The Chiefs relinquished their title over the stadium two years later, with the Blues taking up residency for a 12-12 draw with the Queensland Reds. The shared spoils on that evening began a home relationship with the ground that has not always been as profitable as the Blues would have liked. Although they did go unbeaten for six years at the ground between 2001 and 2006, during a run where their victims included Queensland (39-35) in 2001, New South Wales (22-20) in 2002, and the Crusaders (39-5) in 2003; recent results have not been as favourable. The Blues have lost three of their last four appearances at North Harbour, falling to 25-32 to the Sharks in 2007, 17-27 to the Western Force a year later, and 24-31 to the Queensland Reds during their second game at the facility last year. Overall, the Blues have won eight, lost four and drawn one on the northern side of the Harbour Bridge, but have never hosted the Hurricanes there.
Western Force v Brumbies
At Member’s Equity Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 7.05pm (local), 10.05pm (AEDT)
Referee: Steve Walsh
The Western Force is unbeaten in its last four matches against Australian sides. Last year, the West Australians completed a maiden clean sweep of their compatriots, which included a 25-16 drubbing of the Brumbies in Canberra, notable for the three tries scored by winger Cameron Shepherd. That win was the Force’s second on end against the team from Canberra, after they had rallied from 7-22 down at halftime two years ago to finish 29-22 winners on the Brumbies’ most recent visit to Perth. James O’Connor scored his maiden try in Super rugby during that second half comeback. Matt Giteau was also a try-scorer in that match, and has actually scored tries for both sides in this rivalry, having been a try-scorer for the Brumbies’ during the Force’s inaugural outing in Super Rugby five years ago, when the visitors prevailed 25-10. Now back with the Brumbies, Giteau, if he recovers from his pre-season quadriceps injury in time, will return to Perth for the first time since last year ending his three seasons on the Force playing staff, which saw him depart as the franchise’s leading individual point-scorer. He will playing at a new ground, however, with the Force having switched from Subiaco Oval to the more traditionally rectangular venue at Member’s Equity Stadium in the time since he left. The Force are hoping the new surroundings offer more comfort than Subiaco did, as they have won just 11 of 26 home matches thus far in their four years. Perhaps ominously, their record on opening night is dire, having lost all four first round matches to date; three of which were home defeats against the Brumbies (10-25 – 2006), the Highlanders (7-8 – 2007) and the Blues (19-25 – last year). Added inspiration for Friday night should be provided by Nathan Sharpe, who becomes just the second player to make 50 appearances for the franchise, following on from hooker Tai McIsaac, who hit the mark shortly before his retirement last year. Sharpe returns to action after having been forced to miss the end of last season’s Tri-Nations and the Spring Tour due to a shoulder injury. While the Force skipper raises his half century, new recruits Andre Pretorius (ex-Lions, 69 matches) and Tim Fairbrother (ex-Hurricanes, 58 matches) will take their maiden bows in Perth, after distinguished careers in South Africa and New Zealand respectively. The Brumbies arrive in Perth with high hopes after the off-season acquisitions of Giteau and Qantas Wallabies skipper Rocky Elsom, but – even though it is only round one - this match is critical for them. The Brumbies have won just 11 of 31 outside of Canberra since they last featured in the playoffs (& won the title) back in 2004. The message in that is simple: start winning more consistently away from home. This places a massive emphasis on their start in Western Australia, especially as they are en-route to South Africa with away matches against the Bulls and Stormers to follow. A further sub-plot to this match involves Stirling Mortlock. While he won’t be handling the Brumbies’ goal-kicking now that Giteau is back, the ex-Qantas Wallabies skipper needs just one try (or five points) to become the first player in Super Rugby to surpass the 1000-point barrier.
Last Year – Western Force 25, Brumbies 16 at Canberra
Cheetahs v Bulls
At Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 7.10pm (local), 4.10am, Sat 13 Feb (AEDT)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
South Africa’s two-time title-winners kick off their Super 14 defence at the home of the side the Bulls vanquished in last year’s domestic South African Currie Cup final. While, with just 12 wins from 52 matches since 2006, the Cheetahs are most definitely one of the minnows of Super Rugby, they regularly show a sharper set of claws in the South African domestic league. This includes last year, where the men from Free State overcame the loss of their first four matches to qualify for the semi-finals. They then came from 3-15 astern at halftime to beat the top qualifying Sharks 23-21. The ‘never-say-die’ attitude served the Cheetahs well again a week later in the final as they rallied from 0-24 down to make a contest of it at Loftus Versfeld, before eventually falling 24-36. Although the Cheetahs have won just nine of 26 at home in Super Rugby, the Bulls would be wise to tread warily. The Sharks had won seven of eight, and appeared to be sailing comfortably into the semi-finals before their visit to Bloemfontein last year. A 31-6 spanking changed all that, exposing the Sharks’ frailties to such an extent that they dropped four of their last five to fall out of the playoffs’ race. The Crusaders too, found that ‘Bloem’ can be an inhospitable place, being terrorized by the emerging South African star flanker Heinrich Brussouw, as they fell to a 13-20 loss which nearly cost them a place in the semi-finals. Three of the four previous Super rugby matches between these two have been close, with the Bulls’ winning margins being 12 (30-18) in 2006, four (24-20) in 2007 and nine (29-20) last year. The sole exception to the rule to date was the 60-20 rout of 2008, which came at the back end of a Bulls’ title defence that had gone badly wrong. Having claimed South Africa’s inaugural Super rugby crown in 2007, the Bulls promptly lost seven of their first nine in the next campaign, to concede the title while barely firing a shot. The 40-point whipping of the Cheetahs in the final round of that competition reflected the Bulls’ frustrations. It also continued a level of positive momentum that continues to this day: after winning the last four matches of the ’08 campaign, the Bulls won 12 of 15 last term to annex their second championship in three seasons. They finished last year’s campaign with six wins on end and haven’t been beaten in South Africa in Super Rugby in 15 matches, dating back to a 22-50 loss to the Hurricanes in round nine of the 2008 competition. The Bulls last lost to a South African opponent earlier that same year when the Sharks prevailed 29-15 at Pretoria.
Last Year – Bulls 29, Cheetahs 20 at Pretoria
Morné Steyn – ‘The Local boy who made good’
Although born in Cape Town, Morné Steyn has strong Free State links. That might explain why he has proven so keen to put the boot into the Cheetahs through his Currie Cup and Super Rugby career! The scorer of 137 Test points in his debut as a Springbok last year, Steyn started off with the Bulls in Super Rugby in 2005, but had to wait until their established flyhalf, Derrick Hougaard, moved on to England after 2007, before he could make the Bulls number 10 jersey his own. It has been worth the wait. Before he beat the British & Irish Lions and had a big hand in the Boks’ third Tri-Nations title last year, Steyn had wracked up a Bulls’ record 194 points during last year’s Investec Bank Super 14. This included 21 in the semi-final win over the Crusaders, and 19 in the Grand Final slaughter of the Chiefs. The 25-year-old then did the job for the Pretorians again in the Currie Cup final later in the year, putting the boot into the Cheetahs with 21 points in the Bulls’ 36-24 victory. This was the second time he’d really stuck it to the team of his forebears, having run up 25 points by himself during the Bulls’ 60-20 annihilation of the Cheetahs in 2008.
Saturday 13 February
Crusaders v Highlanders
At AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 7.35pm (local), 5.35pm (AEDT)
Referee: Chris Pollock
The Highlanders have only won twice from nine previous visits to Christchurch but one of those was on their most recent trip two years ago. The Crusaders were already assured of the top qualifying spot for the following week’s semi-finals, the Highlanders were already guaranteed the competition’s wooden spoon – but such is the nature of Super Rugby that the form book was thrown out the door as the visitors marched to a 26-14 win. The Highlanders start their third season under coach Glenn Moore having shaped encouragingly in two pre-season hit-outs, but anxious to move up the table following consecutive 11ths. The Southern men have not managed a top half finish since the most recent of their four semi-final appearances in 2002. This year’s muster is again influenced significantly by recruits from beyond the Otago-Southland region, with three of the players – hooker Jason MacDonald, prop Bronson Murray and loose forward Nasi Manu – familiar with the AMI Stadium surroundings after being with the Crusaders last year. A fourth Highlander, winger James Paterson, was a member of Canterbury’s NPC-winning team last term. The Crusaders might be without skipper Richie McCaw until round four, but Dan Carter is back, and his influence will be huge. Carter averages over 13 points per Super Rugby game. His assuredness and composure can also be expected to help out the young Crusaders three-quarter line. In his absence, try-scoring was uncharacteristically a problem for the Crusaders last year. Their tally of 27 tries scored was the second worst in the competition, which meant they largely had their defence (the competition’s second best) to thank for an 11th semi-final appearance in 14 seasons. The return of Carter and the acquisition of young All Black winger Zac Guilford should help boost the try returns. Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder will also be keen to reintroduce the intimidation factor for visitors to the now fully enclosed and complete AMI Stadium. The Crusaders won four, lost one and drew one at home last year – but three of the four wins were by skimpy margins: six, four and three points respectively. The hallmark of the seven title-winning Crusaders teams was their ability to sweep all before them at home, with visitors often mentally beaten in Christchurch before they’d even kicked off. While the Crusaders can be slow starters in February, and have suffered six previous defeats on the opening weekend of Super Rugby, they’ve only played the Highlanders twice previously in the opening round (2002 & 2006) and won both times. Of the previous opening night losses, five have been sustained away, with the NSW Waratahs of 2004 the only visiting team to prevail in a first round match in Christchurch when they won 43-19.
Last Year – Highlanders 6, Crusaders 0 at Dunedin
The South Island Decider
The Super 14 Era has hardly been kind to the Highlanders. The Southern Men have finished as the bottom-placed New Zealand side in each of the previous four editions of the competition. Even with that record, the Highlanders head to Christchurch in with the chance of becoming the Super 14’s most successful team in matches against the Crusaders. Wins in their last two see the Highlanders bidding to become the first team to finish the Super 14 in the black against the seven-time Super Rugby champions. The Chiefs, Brumbies and Bulls are the only other teams to have twice beaten the Crusaders since 2006. Last year, the Highlanders became the first team to hold the Crusaders score-less in their 172-game history. The 6-0 defeat was the Crusaders’ third loss in succession for 2009 – the first instance they’d lost three in a row excluding playoffs since the inaugural Super 12 in 1996, when the Crusaders had limped home last. The memory of that night should ensure that Todd Blackadder’s men are well motivated for the 18th all-South Island derby in Super Rugby. Despite their recent reverses, the Crusaders still hold an 11-6 advantage over their southern neighbours in terms of wins gained. This includes wins in the 1999 final at Carisbrook and semi-finals a year later, and again in 2002.
Queensland Reds v NSW Waratahs
At Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 6.40pm (local), 7.40 (AEDT)
Referee: Craig Joubert
It might have taken 10 years for the NSW Waratahs to beat the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby, but they’ve been making up for lost time ever since! Last year’s four-point win in Sydney was the Waratahs’ fifth consecutive success over their fierce inter-state rivals. Three of these have been by 1-12 margins: 16-12 in 2006, 18-11 in 2008 and 15-11 last year. The 2005 (27-8) and 2007 (26-13) matches were decided by in excess of 13 points. Benn Robinson and Timana Tahu scored the Waratahs tries during last year’s match, while Dean Mumm and Wycliff Palu supplied the five-pointers the year before. Peter Hynes was the sole Queensland try-scorer last year. This was his third try against NSW, after he also scored in the 2004 and 2008 matches. Hynes, hooker Sean Hardman and lock Van Humphries are the only players that remain from the last Queensland side to have beaten New South Wales in Super Rugby. That was in 2004 at Suncorp Stadium, when tries by Hynes and current Western Force skipper Nathan Sharpe helped the Reds get home 23-7. While Queensland won just two of six in Brisbane last year, those victories were gained at the front end of the campaign in their first two home matches when they beat the Cheetahs (22-3) and the Sharks (25-13). Overall, Queensland has not always enjoyed the fastest start to their Super Rugby seasons, having won just four times on the opening weekend. In contrast, opening night has generally proved exceedingly profitable for NSW. Last year’s 26-22 win over the Hurricanes represented the sixth consecutive occasion that the Waratahs had won their opening match of a Super Rugby campaign. All up, NSW has won 10, lost three and drawn one on the opening weekend, with their most recent first round loss having been sustained in 2003. A delicious sub-plot to the main event is provided by the match ups of Reds coach Ewen McKenzie going up against his former team, while Berrick Barnes faces his ex-team-mates for the first time. McKenzie directed operations from the NSW coaching box for five years; during which time the Waratahs made two finals and a semi-final as he finished with an overall record of 37 wins, 27 defeats and two draws. Barnes played 45 Super Rugby matches for Queensland after debuting against NSW in 2006.
Last Year – NSW Waratahs 15, Queensland Reds 11 at Sydney
Lions v Stormers
At Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 5.05pm (local)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Another new season, and hopes are again high at the foot of Table Mountain as the Stormers set out with another impressive playing roster on-board. While the rock of recent seasons, Jean de Villiers, is now plying his trade with Munster in Ireland; his departure should be more than compensated for by the arrivals of Bryan Habana from the Bulls, and Jaque Fourie, from the Lions. Habana arrives with 37 Super Rugby tries to his name from 61 matches for the Bulls, while Fourie finds himself first up against his old team after having appeared on 68 occasions for the Lions and Cats through seven seasons of hard slog. The acquisition of the Springbok backs should bolster the Stormers in the area where it is needed most if the 2009 trends are an accurate guide – their attack. Too often last year, the Stormers finished one decisive score short, as was evidenced by a season run which saw all but two of their 13 matches decided by a converted try or less. Ironically one that didn’t fit into this category was the game against the Lions, which was competitive for 30 minutes before the Lions gave up tackling, which allowed the Stormers to score a franchise record eight tries in what became a 38-point slaughter. It is the ultimate indictment on the season the Stormers had that the try-scoring bonus collected that day was the only one they achieved last year. Last year’s heavy defeat was the eighth suffered by the Johannesburg-based Super Rugby side against the Stormers in succession. The last win by the then Cats in this rivalry came in 2001. The year in question is significant, as it was the last time the Cats featured in the semi-finals, with their 29-24 win at Newlands in the opening round of that season providing a significant spring board for the then Laurie Mains-coached team. The Cats also beat the semi-final bound Stormers 18-16 at Cape Town in 1999, but have lost nine of 13 against their arch rivals from the coast in total. The Lions’ only wins against fellow South African teams since re-emerging in Super Rugby in their own colours have been home & away against the Cheetahs over the last two seasons. The Lions start 2010 under a new coach, in the ex-Sharks and current Springbok assistant coach Dick Muir, while they have also landed the surprise signing of the year, in the form of the ex-All Black and Blues flyhalf Carlos Spencer. Both have massive jobs ahead revitalizing the team, especially if they are to improve the Lions’ biggest weakness – their defence. The Lions’ let in a league worst 56 tries last term, twice conceding eight in a match, during a campaign where they gave up try-scoring bonus points on seven different occasions. Not that last year was an isolated case - 2009 represented the ninth time in 14 Super Rugby competitions that the Lions/Cats have had either the worst, or the second worst, defence in the competition. For all that, tipsters should be aware that the history of this contest is usually close. Only two of the last 10 matches between these two have not finished in a 1-12 result, and both of those were played in Cape Town.
Last Year – Stormers 56, Lions 18 at Cape Town
Sharks v Chiefs
At The Absa Stadium, Durban
Kick-off: 7.10pm (local)
Referee: Keith Brown
They might have last year become the first team to make the Grand Final after dropping their first three, but the history is already stacked heavily against the Chiefs as they start afresh in 2010. After winning in the opening round of each of the first three Super 12 competitions 1996-98, incredibly the Chiefs have been a first round victor just once (in 2004) in the time since. As if they needed it, Ian Foster’s men also have the South African hurdle to overcome in round one. Their most recent visit to the Republic was a trip too far as they were humiliated 61-17 by a rampant Bulls mob in last year’s final. That defeat was the Chiefs’ 12th from their last 17 outings in South Africa, alongside four wins and a draw. Admittedly most of the games have been a lot closer than that, with nine of the defeats being by a margin of 12 points or less. One of these was the Chiefs’ first outing in the expanded Super 14 in 2006, when they were beaten 30-21 by the Sharks on the opening weekend in Durban. Their most recent visit two years ago saw the Sharks prevail 47-23, with No 8 Ryan Kankowski providing two of the home side’s seven tries. On the plus side for the Chiefs is the confidence gained from last year’s charge to the final. The side won a franchise record 10 matches during this run, which included wins on their first South African tour against the Cheetahs and Stormers. Foster has largely been able to keep the class of ’09 in tact, although the absence of skipper Malili Muliaina for the first-up three-game tour is another major hurdle for the team to overcome. The heat and humidity of late summer Durban is always a massive obstacle for visiting teams to overcome, and the Sharks will be looking to use that advantage during a schedule that opens with two home matches. While the Sharks enjoyed an excellent overseas tour in 2009 winning three from four – which included beating the Chiefs – they later collapsed on home soil, losing three of their last four at The Absa Stadium. Worryingly for coach John Plumtree, the habit resurfaced during the domestic season, with the Sharks qualifying top in the Currie Cup, only to fall to the fourth-placed Cheetahs in a home semi-final. Springbok skipper John Smit, who has won two Tri-Nations and a Rugby World Cup but is yet to win a Super Rugby title, has taken over the on-field leadership at the Sharks this year after Johan Muller led last term.
Last Year – Sharks 22, Chiefs 15 at Hamilton