Thu, Feb 01, 2007 - Page 19 News List

All Black absence may hit Super 14s


Crusaders captain Richie McCaw lifts the trophy after the Super 14 Rugby final between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes at Jade Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, on May 27 last year. McCaw is one of the All Blacks that is set to miss the first half of this year's tournament.


The proximity of this year's Rugby World Cup is expected both to add to and detract from the 2007 Super 14 competition which begins today.

National coaches from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand will use the competition to closely monitor the form of their established and fringe players ahead of finalizing their World Cup squads.

The possibility of injuries to key players, which could heavily impinge on World Cup chances, the opportunity for newcomers to play themselves into Cup reckoning and the positional rivalries of Cup opponents will add elements of intrigue to individual matches.

But New Zealand's decision to withdraw 22 All Blacks from the first seven rounds of the competition for a World Cup "conditioning program" and the temptation of other coaches to wrap frontline internationals in cotton wool will inevitably take some interest from the series' early on.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry won the support of the New Zealand Rugby Union for his plan to keep his top players on the sidelines through half of the Super 14 as he attempts to win New Zealand's first World Cup in 20 years.

Television rights holders and advertisers have complained that the absence of New Zealand and world rugby's biggest names, among them Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, will hit the tournament's audience appeal and ratings.

Henry disputes that the absence of the conditioning program players will detract from the Super 14's appeal.

"I think it's a marvelous opportunity for 22 players who haven't played before and I think there'll be a lot of new faces come up this year ... new players who will go on to be top international footballers," Henry said. "I don't think it's going to devalue the competition at all."

South Africa coach Jake White has not been as fortunate as Henry in protecting his players from the risks and workload of the Super 14. He has appealed to the coaches of South Africa's five franchises to keep in mind the heavy demands on top internationals and to rest top players when possible.

"It's not rocket science that if a guy plays the whole season, by the time he gets to the World Cup he is going to have nothing left to perform," White said.

The absence of New Zealand's top players is not necessarily good news for opposing teams. The All Blacks will return to the Super 14 at a crucial stage, fresh and rested with an opportunity to change the course of the competition through its later rounds.

The defending champion Canterbury Crusaders will give more players to the All Blacks conditioning squad than any other franchise but they still remain firm favorites to win the competition again.

The New South Wales Waratahs have title ambitions, but their cause is not helped by the fact they will play all of the New Zealand sides late in the season when they are restored to full strength.

The emergence of the young flyhalf Kurtley Beale, regarded as one of Australia's most exciting finds in recent seasons, will give their season extra interest.

"He has a natural instinct for the game, he is one of those players who has an inordinate amount of time to play, he can read the game, pick options and he has the skill set to match it," Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie said.

The ACT Brumbies will hope to grab a finals place to mark the last Super 14 seasons of halves George Gregan and Stephen Larkham.

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