The Canterbury Crusaders go into this season’s Super 14 competition carrying the usual tag as favorites, but the New Zealand-based side will need to overcome the sternest of challenges to maintain their dominance.
The Crusaders have won seven of the 13 tournaments contested by the southern hemisphere’s top provincial sides, including three of the last four.
Last year’s triumph was all the more remarkable as it came despite the introduction of rule changes and the loss of a host of international players, who either retired after the 2007 World Cup or were drawn to Europe by lucrative deals. However, Canterbury are fully aware that the new season, which kicks off today, presents an even trickier challenge because of the departure of coach Robbie Deans and the absence of injured flyhalf Dan Carter.
Deans, who was the mastermind of the Crusaders’ last five titles, left New Zealand last season to take up the job of coaching Australia.
He said he expected the side to remain as formidable as ever.
“The Crusaders will be thereabouts, no doubt,” Deans said. “They’ve just got too much not to be, and some [winning] habits. And they’re well supported, they’ve got a good coaching mix there.”
The loss of Carter is possibly a bigger concern. The prolific point-scorer is out for the season after taking a sabbatical to play club rugby in France, where he subsequently injured himself.
The Crusaders’ biggest threat is likely to come from national rivals the Auckland Blues and the Wellington Hurricanes.
The Bulls provided South Africa with their first Super 14 winners in 2007, but came back down to Earth again last year.
The Durban-based Sharks will be bolstered by the return of World Cup-winning skipper John Smit and a host of other Springboks, including team captain Johann Muller.
The only Australian team to win the tournament were the ACT Brumbies but he New South Wales Waratahs have taken over the mantle of Australia’s best side, reaching the final in 2005 and again last year.
For Western Force last year’s eighth placing — just one win behind the fourth-placed Hurricanes — was expected to be the next stepping stone towards finals action as the franchise headed into their fourth season in Super rugby. But the Perth-based side have been dogged by major off-field dramas in recent months.
Uncertainty lingered over Matt Giteau’s intentions, with the Wallaby star and the Force’s leading pointscorer last year unhappy after the demise of a rich third-party sponsorship deal when the company involved collapsed.
Giteau indicated he was considering a lucrative offer to play in France and there was also talk of a switch back to the Brumbies.
Controversy also exploded over the tenure of coach John Mitchell, which saw him banished from the club for an extended period and culminated in an independent inquiry into his relationship with players and other officials.
As if those two issues weren’t enough, on the eve of the Force’s season-opener against the Auckland Blues at Subiaco Oval today they have found themselves struck down by injuries to key players.
Mitchell said he was wary of the Blues, despite admitting to not knowing too much about them.
“What I do know is that any side prepared by Pat Lam is well prepared,” he said. “Traditionally the Blues have always started strong in the competition and we see that no different.”