Sonny side up for Chiefs in 2015 Super Rugby
Super Rugby's conclusion overnight prompted LIAM NAPIER to run the rule over the season that was.
CAN THE CHIEFS REGAIN THE TITLE?
A tall order but not beyond reach. Aaron Cruden's rekindled pairing with Sonny Bill Williams should have a major impact and highlight a powerful backline.
After two years in league, Williams will need time to re-adjust to the nuances of the XV-man game, but his punch in the midfield has been sorely missed.
His presence also gives Cruden more time and space, and allows his offloading game to thrive.
Wayne Smith's potential absence - should he rejoin the All Blacks - could be a severe blow.
And after three years there is a need to overhaul the game plan.
The Chiefs were heavily targeted and penalised at the breakdown, both with and without the ball, this season.
They struggled to build phases and pressure throughout the year, and there was an unusual sense of panic in the Canberra playoff, before the comeback was launched.
The widespread rotation policy, which relies on squad depth, may also be reviewed. Still, the belief in this group remains strong.
After being dethroned, they will start 2015 with renewed hunger.
HOW DID JAMIE JOSEPH TURN AROUND THE HIGHLANDERS?
Losing their stars enabled the Highlanders to find themselves again. Sure, Aaron and Ben Smith have become world-class All Blacks, but Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear, Colin Slade and Andrew Hore amount to a sizeable exodus.
After losing such talent, the Highlanders were again the underdogs - where they are most comfortable. Up stepped some unlikely heroes.
Kane Hames shone at loosehead; Nasi Manu worked tirelessly, Blues castoff Malakai Fekitoa stole the show while out wide Richard Buckman and Patrick Osborne's contrasting abilities complemented each other.
Tony Brown's addition to the management team cannot be understated - the former All Black's calm head gave Lima Sopoaga renewed confidence to direct the team.
Brown may prove the perfect foil for Joseph, who has undoubtedly matured in his approach. An old-school traditionalist, Joseph's ruthless attitude to flogging his men at training saw them fall over with fatigue in the past two seasons.
A united team of over-achievers, combined with a fresh outlook from management, set the tone for a complete transformation this year. It was inspirational.
Now the southerners must build on their first playoff appearance in 14 years. No-one wants to wait that long again.
WHAT WILL CHRIS BOYD BRING TO THE HURRICANES?
Boyd is off to a quality start on the recruitment front. Ma'a Nonu's homecoming has been well publicised but John Plumtree's addition as forwards coach should excite more.
The Hurricanes again boast a Rolls-Royce backline. Perenara, Barrett, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Savea, Proctor/Woodward. It won't get much better. That is nothing new, though. Cullen, Lomu and Umaga did not win a title either.
Plumtree's forward nous and experience, having led the Sharks to the final and recently left the Irish national team, could make the difference.
Though his local province, Taranaki, has aligned with the Chiefs, Plumtree's heart has always been with the 'Canes.
That passion needs to get the pack humming.
By all accounts, Boyd inherits an improving culture.
Mark Hammett failed to reach the playoffs during his four-year term but players speak fondly of his values.
Unlike Hammett, though, Boyd is a local favourite and thus starts his reign with public goodwill and established player relationships.
That should allow him to get the best out of key figures.
WILL THE BLUES BE ANY DIFFERENT NEXT YEAR?
On paper, it is difficult to predict drastic improvements.
Much will depend on their ability to attract a quality forwards coach, following the departures of Mick Byrne and Graham Henry.
This year the Blues' best came on the back of physically imposing performances from the forwards.
More of this is required.
Personnel-wise, the Blues have holes at lock and midfield that could prove problematic to fill.
Nationwide, second-row stocks are at a premium. Without Nonu in particular, the backline also lacks experience.
That is a major concern in pressure situations.
Bryn Hall and Ihaia West have a heavy burden to bear. To be fair, the Blues were not far away this season - one more win would have seen them approach the final-round loss against the Chiefs in a more measured manner.
Two significant management changes will bring fresh ideas, which will take time to bed in - not ideal as John Kirwan enters the final year of his contract.
While a 50 per cent winning record will be enough to see him reappointed, the expectant public will demand at least a playoff appearance.
THE NAPIER AWARDS
Rookie of the season: Can't go past Malakai Fekitoa. Started the season as a relative unknown and surged into the All Blacks' backup centre role with irresistible form. Honourable mentions for Chiefs No 8 Liam Squire and Crusaders flanker Jordan Taufua.
Biggest flop: South African teams. Occupying four of the last seven spots sums up this rag-tag bunch. No way do they deserve a sixth side. Political power and broadcast revenue strength continue to hold sway over decision-makers.
Unsung hero: Shane Christie. In his first full season at this level, the Highlanders openside flanker matched, and outshone, much bigger names. A late bloomer at 28, Christie is a rare classical tearaway who may have finally found his niche.
Most annoying character: Steve Walsh – simply put, loves being centre of attention and the sound of his own voice. The best referees are authoritative and relatively innocuous. Take note, Steve.
Cult figure: Nick "The Honey Badger" Cummings. Australian rugby needs an uppercut for letting their most popular personality slip out the door to Japan. Cummings' post-match musings about going "head over biscuit" and chasing "meat" offered a refreshing change from tired rugby cliches. More should have been done to keep him in the Australian game.
Best performance: It doesn't get much more one-sided than the Crusaders' supremely dominant 38-6 semifinal win over the Sharks. The red-and-black forward pack crushed their vaunted South African opponents, allowing the pretty boys to run riot.
Biggest upset: No-one gave the Highlanders a chance of rolling the Sharks in Durban. What transpired was a memorable attacking ambush. But for a demolished scrum, they would have repeated the dose in the quarterfinal too.
Worst lame-brained idea: Expansion. For the finance committees, not the punters. Three more teams; more concerns around player depth; and more movement away from the ideal format, which has everyone play everyone.
Sunday Star Times