The Super 14: Key Men and the Key Roles

James MortimerAnalyst IJanuary 29, 2009

As another enthralling season draws agonisingly closer, who will the eyes of the faithful be on this Super 14 season? 


Even more prudent, what positions will each country put under scrutiny— and what factors will dominate leading into the Tri Nations?



New Zealand


The Second row will be a position closely monitored by the coaches this year. In 2008, Brad Thorn took the role often occupied by Jerry Collins as a midfield warhead, which gave the All Blacks impetus in the second phase. 


Likewise, it was the reliability of Ali William’s combinations with his hookers that allowed New Zealand to regularly employ five man lines to devastating effect. 


Anthony Boric, Jason Eaton, Ross Filipo, and even Jeremy Thrush all put their hands up last year. But with the evolution of the role in All Black rugby, the need for capable understudies is crucial, especially with Thorn not likely to last till 2011.



Players to watch

Stephen Donald, Fly half: Chiefs


Officially New Zealand’s backup first five eighth, Donald will want a strong season without Dan Carter breathing down his neck domestically. He is strong all round, like Carter, but still unable to control play tactically as the Canterbury supremo. Donald still can overplay his hand on attack, much like Carter did a few years ago.


Ma’a Nonu, Inside Center: Hurricanes


The world’s most penetrative inside back completely revolutionised his game, to the point where (in Bledisloe four in Hong Kong) the All Blacks looked lost without his presence in the midfield. Now acknowledged by Wayne Smith as a genuine leader, he must enforce his power on the domestic game where New Zealand Super 14 teams know how to shut him down. If he has a strong season, the Hurricanes can win the title.



Single most important factor


Player Depth. The All Black second XV was almost beaten last season by a Munster second XV. Furthermore, with Henry rolling out his elite starting team game after game, there was little chance for the understudies to get game time at Test level. Backup to players such as Carter, Nonu, the locks, and of course Richie McCaw is crucial building to a World Cup offense.





A large reason for Canterbury being so dominant under Robbie Deans was the employment of a tactical second five eighth, in essence a second fly half. This was imitated to great success by the Wallabies with Stephen Larkham and Matt Giteau in the 10/12 axis.


Due to injuries, Stirling Mortlock played inside center for the second half of the season, and Australia, while being shored up defensively, at times looked wanting for tactical and kicking options.


The question will be who to fill the play-making bloc. 


Is Berrick Barnes better suited to play fly half, with Giteau moving out to center? 


What of Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, both who offer traditional Australian playmaking dynamism?  Could one of the latter fill the problematic fullback position?



Players to watch


Luke Burgress, Scrumhalf: NSW Waratahs


After being undisputed as the premier number nine in Australia, it would be fair to say the wheels fell off in the Autumn Internationals for the first choice scrum half. Some would argue that it was due to a bad combination with Giteau (further credence to the paragraph above), but poor ball control from both the ruck and first phase stuttered the Wallabies attack last year. Burgess will need a big year.

Al Baxter, Benn Robinson, Greg Holmes and Ben Alexander: Wallaby Props


All lifted their games to startling heights last year, matching Springbok and All Black packs, and famously shoving the English backwards on their beloved turf of Twickenham. Has the long feted weakness of the Australian game disappeared? For the formerly maligned Australian props, the challenge is to maintain.



Single most important factor


What has happened to the Wallaby backline? It rarely looked fluent last year, and you know something is wrong with Australian rugby when their packs start winning them games. As mentioned above, much rests on the shoulders of the creative minds of the inside men. But considering this is considered Deans historical forte, he needs to reinvigorate the traditional Wallaby strength.



South Africa


The Springboks won the World Cup through a controlled pragmatism, combining outstanding defense, brutal set piece organisation, and brilliant tactical kicking from the fly half position. Butch James commenced the season, and Ruan Piennar concluded 2008. 


With Coach Peter De Villiers alternating the battle plans of the Springboks, most pressure was imparted on the pivot position. When James or Piennar struggled, so did South Africa. But when the key to De Villiers madness was found via their first five, the Springboks were devastating, as seen in the final Tri Nations game against Australia, and in the Massacre at Twickenham. 


This indecision with game play caused consternation not only in the national team but within the Super 14 teams as well.  Will a better balance be struck by the South African playmakers this year?



Players to watch


Francois Steyn, Inside Center: Sharks


Quite possibly the most prodigious kicker in world rugby, and will play this Super 14 at the position of No. 12. Many regard him to be a player to build a team around, but he suffered with inconsistency having played every position in the backline except scrum half. Still only 21, will he show more control since being educated by Andrew Johns recently?


Bryan Habana, Wing: Bulls


Finished 2007 as quite possibly the most devastating finisher the game had ever seen, but 2008 was a terrible vintage by the standards set by the winger from Benoni. He was rarely seen on attack, and at times even considered a liability on defense. Can we see a return to the high standards set by the outstanding three quarter?



Single most important factor


Consistency. The Springboks and last year’s Super 14 teams were either world beating one day, or borderline chokers the next. If they can maintain form and a select game plan, it could be a brilliant year for the powerful rugby nation.