World Cup looms over NZ Super 15 teams

2011-02-11 08:47

Wellington, New Zealand – For New Zealanders, the first Super 15 rugby tournament will be a closely watched World Cup warm up, accompanied by the nerves and the missteps which attend any dress rehearsal.

From stadium security to public transport, the tournament will be used as a dry run for the Cup which will be staged in New Zealand in September and October.

For local fans – starved of a World Cup victory since New Zealand hosted the inaugural tournament in 1987 – the focus will be more on-field than off, hoping for a strong showing by national players.

The tournament will be a proving ground for all aspirants to an All Blacks jersey.

In 2007, when South Africa won the World Cup in France, it had previously furnished the two finalists in that season’s Super 14.

However the Super rugby-World Cup connection is not always that strong; New Zealand fielded both Super 12 finalists in 2003, before the World Cup was won by England, and also in 1999 before a Cup won by Australia.

New Zealanders will watch the extended tournament with some anxiety about the risk of injuries to key All Blacks.

New Zealand captain Richie McCaw is already out of action for six weeks with a stress fracture to his right foot and fans fear any further injury which affects his World Cup availability.

The loss of McCaw or his All Blacks and Canterbury Crusaders teammate, flyhalf Dan Carter would be immensely damaging to New Zealand’s World Cup chances but, equally, withholding the All Blacks from the Super 15 would be detrimental.

All Blacks coaches Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen chose to keep their players out of the first half of the 2007 tournament in the hope of ensuring their fitness for that year’s World Cup.

The move backfired when the players reached the world tournament short of match fitness.

The extended Super 15 season threatens the opposite effect: to impose too many demands on players ahead of the World Cup and to risk their burnout before the world tournament arrives. Henry has called on Super 15 coaches to carefully manage player workloads.

Going easy on players will be difficult under the tournament’s new conference format of regional pools, which emphasize the usually intense derby matches.

That may be particularly the case in New Zealand, where long-standing inter-provincial rivalries are ingrained in Super rugby.

But outside observers are still predicting a New Zealand team will win this year’s tournament, giving it a World Cup confidence boost.

Duane Vermuelen, a back rower for South Africa’s Stormers, believes New Zealand teams will be the measuring stick.

“They are going to be extra motivated this year because of the World Cup being in their country,” Vermeulen said.

“All the New Zealand players are going to be busting a gut to try and make it into the World Cup squad.

The whole World Cup vibe is going to start early for them and it is going to be a motivating force.”

Vermuelen said New Zealand teams will have not only atmosphere, but momentum on their side.

“The All Blacks were very good in the Tri-Nations last year, where they recovered well from their previous season, where they really struggled. So the momentum is up now for New Zealand and they will be wanting to keep it that way as the country heads towards the World Cup.”

Which New Zealand team might emerge from the internecine rivalries of conference play to challenge for the tournament title is not easy to predict.

The Canterbury Crusaders – seven times Super champions – are typically strong, filled with international stars such as McCaw, Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Israel Dagg.

Canterbury has more All Blacks on its roster than other teams and may therefore face more pressure to balance the workload of those players, affecting its selection and combinations.

The Auckland Blues, under coach Pat Lam, have talent but not depth, leaving them vulnerable to injuries.

The Wellington Hurricanes, under new coach Mark Hammett, the Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders will also depend on the regular availability of All Blacks to be competitive but all three teams traditionally lack consistency. 

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