OPINION: While players and teams are, and must be, the prime focus, the five New Zealand Super Rugby coaches will be under great scrutiny over the next few months.
Twelve months ago, there were little or no expectations on either Mark Hammett or his young bunch of Hurricanes. That has all changed and names like Nonu, Weepu, Hore, Cruden and Gear, are just a distant memory as the new breed step up to the mark for round two.
In the same way that Kirwan will be hoping for the new breed to blossom this season, Hammett was able to unleash Barrett, Savea, Perenara, Taylor, and Coles, on unsuspecting opposition in 2012. They were the entertainers in the competition and the fans who fondly remember the days of Cullen, Umaga and Lomu, came flocking back to watch exciting, but as expected, not always winning rugby.
That's the task for Hammett in 2013: keep up the entertainment but win at the same time.
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Ironically, Sir John Kirwan, who takes over at the under-performing Blues, will be cut more slack than the other coaches simply because the expectations on the northern franchise are not particularly high. Losing world-class players like Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu makes it tough for the new coach but, as Mark Hammett showed last season, it can be a positive. It forces other players to fill the void and as New Zealand rugby shows time after time, those players will always emerge.
Kirwan has surrounded himself with rugby ''heavyweights'' Sir Graham Henry and Mick Byrne and between the three of them they are charged with lifting the performance of this country's most scrutinized and high-profile side. Will they? Yes, but don't expect miracles.
A couple of hours down State Highway One, Dave Rennie has a very different task. After the euphoria of winning the title in his first season at the franchise, Rennie will be well aware that any less than a repeat will be regarded as failure by Chiefs fans.
Throughout their history the Chiefs have been gloriously inconsistent and it took the diligent and understated, but well-credentialed Rennie, to finally bring stability and, ultimately, success to the side.
Wayne Smith prefers to lurk in the background but the influence of the former All Black coach last season was immense and he, along with Rennie, will have spent a lot of time pondering how to replace one of the stars of the show last season, Sonny Bill Williams.
Make no mistake, this coaching ''dream team'' with their squad of ''sleeves up'' hard workers will be right in contention again, which is why punters seem very keen to take the $7.00 the TAB is offering for the Chiefs to go back to back.
Inheriting a winning team from a coaching legend was always going to be one heck of a mountain to climb and Todd Blackadder, so far, hasn't delivered.
Robbie Deans fashioned such an incredible record at the Crusaders that red and black fans simply demand success. It's almost a given that the Crusaders make the playoffs, they have for the past 11 seasons, but kicking on to a title has eluded them since Deans' last season, 2008.
Blackadder and the franchise have done plenty of soul- searching in the off season and in the wash up Daryl Gibson, a staunch Canterbury and Crusader stalwart, departed to help the Waratahs after his coaching position was ''redefined''.
What this actually means remains to be seen but successful Canterbury ITM coach, Tabai Matson, should slot seamlessly into the vacant role. For much of the campaign Richie McCaw will be missing and so Blackadder will be relying on the hard core experience of Kieran Read and Dan Carter to lead the team through.
It's almost got to the point where Blackadder has to deliver a title or look for a new job - that is real pressure, but I note the Crusaders are $4.50 favourites to take the 2013 title - clearly the bookies aren't willing to risk the most successful franchise in Super Rugby.
In the south of the South Island Jamie Joseph has learned some harsh lessons over the past two seasons.
His Highlanders have charged out of the gates like Black Caviar only to find, for varying reasons, that they ran out of puff in the home straight.
Wear and tear, injuries, and squad depth, have been major issues and Joseph has acted this season to overcome those problems. Wear and tear and squad depth go hand in hand because Joseph was forced to use a hard core of players match in and match out and it was inevitable that they would never be able to sustain the frenetic pace they set in the early games.
The 2013 Highlanders have added 200-odd test matches to their squad in the form of Brad Thorn, Ma'a Nonu and Tony Woodcock, and this will allow Joseph to better utilize his resources.
After promising so much in the early stages of his two campaigns to date, Jamie Joseph will now be expected to ensure that this version of the Highlanders will make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
My predictions for this weekend:
Highlanders v Chiefs: Highlanders 12 and under
Rebels v Brumbies: Rebels 12 and under
Bulls v Stormers: Stormers 12 and under
Hurricanes v Blues: Canes 12 and under
Reds v Waratahs: Waratahs 12 and under
Cheetahs v Sharks: Sharks 13+
Kings v Force: Force 13+
Sky Sports rugby commentator and TAB rugby specialist Grant Nisbett will provide his thoughts throughout the 2013 Super Rugby season. Get involved, have your say.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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