OPINION: Super Rugby has some special players and it hasn't been easy coming up with my five most influential figures heading into the 2014 season.
First let me explain the attributes I was looking at. Talent, of course, is important but in such a difficult competition the value of leadership shouldn't be under-estimated. Experience is also paramount, as is consistency. Most teams have the talent to be competitive; it's getting in the right frame of mind to perform.
I've gone for class acts, but with all bar one their influence as leaders is as important as their impact as players.
Just as an aside, I was tempted to include Jake White whose move to the Sharks could change the balance of the competition. But then we're talking coaches and it's much harder to quantify their influence.
So here's my five:
Richie McCaw (Crusaders) Richie's full-time return to the Crusaders is significant. Here is a guy who doesn't accept mediocrity, is driven to get back to the top of the tree, and whose leadership will be vital for a team having to do without Dan Carter.
McCaw's ability to drive team-mates and inspire as a player, combined with the talented and hard-nosed squad they've got, puts the Crusaders in a strong position. Plus this year he's there for the long haul.
He'll bring a level of expectation, confidence and clarity that was missing for the early part of 2013. He doesn't allow players to drift, and is clear on what needs to be delivered.
As great as Kieran Read was in 2013 - the best player in the world by consensus - he doesn't have McCaw's depth of experience. He's still the apprentice when the master is there.
McCaw won't play every game, and Read will still be a big influence, but there's a special mana about McCaw. He'd also like to prove that 2015 is not beyond him. That's a powerful motivator.
Whoever wears No 10
for the Blues It's looking like it will be Benji Marshall, but it could also be Chris Noakes or Baden Kerr. The Blues have long been searching for their general, and if this talented team with some vastly experienced All Blacks is to deliver, they'll need to find him this year.
The Blues should perform at a very high level but they need someone to drive it, and to take control. Whoever it is in that 10 jersey, if they can find a way to make use of all of this talent, give it clarity, confidence and self-belief then they're a playoff team.
With that coaching staff, and all that experience and talent, they just need a navigator.
If it's Benji, the pressure will be on. Getting out of the gate is vital. There's not much room for error. If the Blues are to be a force they need to be consistent from the start and five-eighth is key to that.
It's been a while since the Blues have had one man to fill that jersey. Is this the year?
Schalk Burger (Stormers) Coming off a long injury layoff, this guy will be an inspiration for the Stormers. He epitomises the brutality they play with, he's their leader, their X-factor player and he demands a lot of his team-mates.
They won their last five in 2013, are a strong team at home, and can get on a roll. Burger's return gives them a real chance to go to another level. He changes the environment with his presence.
Looking across the South African teams, he's one guy capable of taking the Stormers into the frame. He suits the way they play, and has got so much experience.
James Horwill (Reds) The Reds have talent but when they're at their best their forward pack is getting the job done. Horwill is a big part of that.
Three years ago they were the best team in the competition, and they need that sort of inspiration again. When the work is done up front, Genia and Cooper can play their part.
Horwill's performance and leadership is vital. He knows the pressure is on to deliver again. He's had the Wallaby captaincy taken off him, so his performances in that pack will be closely watched. He's a motivator, as well as a performer, and the Reds need him to be back at his best.
When firing, he's one of the best "loose" locks around - more Sam Whitelock than Brodie Retallick. If he can dominate in the air, show that versatility round the field, and deliver the physicality he was renowned for, the Reds should be contenders again.
Israel Folau (Waratahs) This is my one selection based purely on talent - possibly the world's most potent attacking player in a Wallaby-laden side.
In 2013 the rise of Folau was phenomenal. From where he came from in week one to where he finished the Wallabies tour, this guy became something truly special with his impact, ability with ball in hand and in the air, and his understanding of the game. The Tahs have to find a way to use that.
It appears there's little he can't do on a rugby field, and this is purely and simply about his ability as a player. Every time he has his hands on the ball he can make an impact and you could see by year-end he had a real confidence about him.
Last year he didn't get enough touches; the Waratahs in 2014 must unleash their beast on a consistent basis.
- Sunday Star Times
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