New Zealand Super 14: How Are They Looking?
The competitions finest performed nation (with 10 titles won by New Zealand since 1996) did not have it all their way early in the tournament.
We have seen the seven time champions go four matches without a competition victory, have never had more than one team in the elusive top four, and have seen all New Zealand teams hamstrung with a huge number of injuries. Especially with front line All Blacks.
On the back of a some surprising results by the weaker (on paper) New Zealand sides, and the increasing form of the countries marquee players has shown much for the state of the national team.
It appears despite earlier misgivings that it will be a formidable All Black team to march on a record tenth Tri Nations championship, and their fifth straight such title. They will also be looking to record their seventh consecutive Bledisloe Cup series triumph.
But before the Springboks, who will be match hardened by the Lions, and the Wallabies take on their oldest foes, New Zealand will host Italy and France.
With the greatest respect to Italy, it will likely be a slaughter.
But France will be the big test, who have showed their extreme Jekyll & Hyde culture is alive and well during the Six Nations. In their first match since the World Cup quarter final, France will be looking to record just their third victory against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
The last French away win was in 1994. With only the English victory in 2003 withstanding, it has been a remarkable modern era of home dominance from the All Blacks, with just three losses to Northern opposition at home since losing the two test series to the French 15 years ago.
So, to follow a practical international selection modus operandi, you would base your test team around the nucleus of the most dominant province.
And at this time, one cannot deny that the outstanding team is Waikato.
Could you imagine the Chiefs team with an All Black tight five at their helm, Richie McCaw and a splattering of other top level test players?
While they started the season in their traditional slow manner, they exhibit the hottest and most lethal attack in the competition, buttressed by All Blacks throughout their three quarter line.
Most pleasing though for Coach Ian Foster and their backs, will be the enhanced performance of their pack and set piece, which looked under threat early in the competition. They do not need to be world beating, for gaining parity in these areas is all that is needed for the in-form backline to perform their scoring magic.
Hosting the Lions next week, one would bet on a third consecutive 50 point score line, something no team has achieved in the history of Super rugby.
The Blues have been a typical enigma, equal highest try scorers (with the Chiefs) and having the highest points for record of any side.
But defensively the Blues are the worst team in the competition, conceding over 4 tries per match, and having had 223 points posted against them so far – 43 more than any other side.
The talent is there, as is the form. They may have lost three matches, but the manner in which they have gone down fighting has shown character, and with all men on deck (they started the campaign without three front line All Blacks) they will be a menace if they can tighten their defence.
The Highlanders and Crusaders represent all that is good with New Zealand rugby. Both dramatically undermanned in regard to star power, with the defending champions all but crippled with player injuries and retirements.
But this is not showing with their results. They are the epitome of well drilled teams, who play to a specific pattern, or more to the point, with an intention to disrupt the opposition.
Simply put, the undermanned Crusaders should not have really beaten the Waratahs or the Stormers, but did so through a combination of a brilliant executed defence (how have they mastered a blitz defence in one season?) and the tried and true principle of well rehearsed basics.
How dangerous will the defending champions be with Richie McCaw back on deck?
Hovering mid table, both teams may not be championship vintage, but will take many more scalps as the season progresses, and with young rosters, continue the metronome like development of the traditional southern provinces.
Ominously, both teams have do not have particularly imposing runs home to the finals.
The Hurricanes lurk as the greatest danger team to the competition. Fifth on the table, even the most optimistic fan would agree they have not fired any broadsides in the competition.
They have depth that other teams are no doubt envious off. Test players Hosea Gear and Scott Waldrom are injured, and replaced with Sevens sensation Victor Vito and All Black Cory Jane.
Anything but a finals appearance would be deemed as a failure by a team that has featured in four semi finals in six years, six NZ provincial finals in the last seven years, and has 12 past or present All Blacks in their full strength starting team.
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