Super teams prepare for mid-season interruption

JIM MORTON
Last updated 15:20 17/02/2012

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Crouch, touch, pause, engage. Super Rugby's longest competition is set to kick off but get ready to pause again.

For the first time in the 17-season history of SANZAR's provincial championship, a mid-year break will make claiming the Super title trickier than ever.

The competition will go into a four-week hiatus in June to accommodate international matches for the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks.

Resting, squad management and good luck will become crucial elements for play-off contenders across the three countries as franchises cross their fingers their test stars emerge from national duty unscathed.

An injury to one or two key players in torrid clashes against northern hemisphere rivals could pull the rug from under leading Super teams by halting valuable momentum before the business end of the competition.

In a season already labelled the most gruelling on record for test players, three Super rounds will follow the June internationals before a six-team finals series ending with an August 4 decider.

World Cup-winning former Springboks coach Jake White is preparing for his first year in charge of the once-mighty Brumbies and doesn't mind the dearth of Wallabies in his greenhorn squad.

"It's a massive advantage and I don't think people have really thought it through," White told AAP. "You could be leading the competition, lose your Wallabies, and end up struggling.

"If all of a sudden a guy gets banged up in a test match and can't play the next two games that changes the whole table again.

"You could be leading the conference, lose two games and then come third." Title-winning Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie believes the mental impact of the June internationals is just as concerning as the physical toll, and will do his utmost to ensure his large number of Wallabies remain fresh for a likely finals campaign.

"You have to manage them; they will tell you they are willing but in the end they can only front up so many times," McKenzie said.

"It really gets to the point where you look at your squad and say I need 30 guys who can go out there and play.

"That will be the defining bit I think." The Reds and arch-rivals NSW certainly boast the most Wallabies and best depth of the five local sides. They're unsurprisingly $1.38 and $1.55 bets, respectively, to make the play-offs.

It appears a race in two to claim the Australian conference with White's Brumbies ($3.25), last year's wooden-spooners the Melbourne Rebels ($4) and the Western Force ($5.50) outsiders for the top six.

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The Crusaders will once again start as favourites to win their eighth title ahead of bitter rivals the Blues, who have been boosted by luring All Black duo Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu from the Hurricanes.

The Sharks may have lost ageing Springboks skipper John Smit but they appear the most dangerous and best-balanced South African outfit ahead of the Stormers and Bulls, hit by a post-World Cup exodus.

- AAP

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