Chiefs, Crusaders tipped to dominate again
An Indian summer, barbecues . . it must be the rugby season. Rugby writer Glenn McLean previews Super Rugby 2014, which kicks off this weekend.
A split start to the season, uneven conferences, painful travel schedules, different time zones, teams not playing other teams, a confusing finals format . . . Super Rugby is back.
Despite all its complications, the tournament dominates New Zealand's rugby landscape from February through to August and remains the focal point for many fans, albeit a lot of those prefer to stay at home.
Hurricanes fullback Cory Jane surprisingly bemoaned the number of New Zealand conference matches the players face each season because it is those very games that appeared to reinvigorate the competition for a lot of fans.
That appears doubly so this season when the two-time defending champion Chiefs and Crusaders are expected to dominate the New Zealand conference.
Loyalties appear split in Taranaki between those wanting to support the Chiefs, the provincial union's newly-backed franchise, and the Hurricanes, where most of the region's Super players are.
Although some prefer to grumble about the split, it at least provides another option and the opportunity to see two live quality games a season.
The Chiefs do look more capable of making the top six, if only because of the quality of the coaching staff and the experience a lot of the players have of what is required to win the competition.
Add in proven ball winners, consistent loose forwards, a world class pivot and a long list of line breakers and it's hard not to see the Chiefs figuring in the playoffs.
The Hurricanes are overdue to prove their doubters wrong and they are a squad which has the benefit of having played together more than a lot of other sides.
However, second five-eighth remains a problem area, as does the lack of consistency from the forwards and proven back-up to Beauden Barrett, while too many players are prone to costly errors.
The Crusaders again look formidable, even without Dan Carter, who can be covered adequately by a number of players, while the seven-time champions have a forward pack that can adapt to most situations.
Injuries could hurt them out wide and the loss of Robbie Fruean might be more significant than many people think.
Of the remaining New Zealand sides, the Blues are capable of making a run at the top six, but must be concerned about the squad's locking stocks, while the Highlanders appear to lack depth in a host of positions.
Across the ditch, there appears to be a three-way battle for the Australian conference title, with the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies all having legitimate claims.
The Reds without Ewen McKenzie might not be the same, nor the Brumbies without Jake White, although Stephen Larkham could be a dark horse in the coaching ranks. That leaves the ever under-achieving Waratahs who share a lot in common with the Hurricanes.
As for the South Africa conference, expect the same, tough, uncompromising stuff, with the Cheetahs unlikely to repeat their heroics from last season.
FIVE TO WATCH
If Beauden Barrett wants to move from third cab off the rank to show he should be wearing the All Blacks No 10 jersey, then 2014 is the year to do it.
With world points record holder Dan Carter taking time out, Barrett needs to show he is more than just a back-up, something many around Taranaki would argue he has already done after some magnificent performances off the bench last season.
With Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett unlikely to switch him to fullback in 2014, Barrett needs to show even more direction than he has and encourage the side to use the ball in hand more than the kick-first tactics employed in 2013.
Barrett was a slow starter last season but has put more work in over summer and should be ready to show some top form a bit sooner.
Barrett versus Aaron Cruden should be a story worth following.
Benji Marshall knew his transfer from league to union was going to be heavily scrutinised and he will no doubt be prepared for it.
In reality, that could be the easy challenge as the press hit a lot softer than some of the men who will be hunting him down.
Whether you like or loathe Marshall, everyone who follows the game should be looking forward to watching him play and he will no doubt show he is more than capable of footing it at this level.
Just how successful he will be could depend on how much he enjoys himself and how much some of the All Black aspirants enjoy playing outside him.
If it doesn't get too boring, then it could be a fantastic story to follow.
With Jamie Joseph appearing to be a protected species down at the Highlanders, the coach who appears most under pressure within the New Zealand franchises appears to be Hurricanes boss Mark Hammett. Apart from one semi-inspiring season, Hammett has failed to make the grade since his surprising appointment and there will be plenty of detractors ready to put the knife in if he continues to flounder.
A lot of Hurricanes fans will be hoping Hammett moves away from his conservative approach and returns to a more attacking style, but that will no doubt depend on just how many wins the franchise can clock up early.
Given they have a trip to South Africa to start with before a Friday home match against the Brumbies, things could get interesting early.
It's a pity the TAB doesn't open a book on whether or not Hammett will survive.
Rhys Marshall's second year in Super Rugby might just be his most important.
Given his age, there has been plenty of pressure already heaped on his shoulders and that weight got heavier in the off-season after Hika Elliot revealed a possible career ending neck injury.
Marshall struggled to round the year out after a hectic first professional season but will benefit greatly this term by simply knowing what it's all about.
His head-to-head battle with Highlanders rake Liam Coltman is an interesting one, especially with both men having strong Taranaki roots.
Coltman has his beard in front but watch for Marshall to get stronger and better under the guidance of master coach Dave Rennie.
Standing behind a television microphone obviously did not sit that well with 36-year-old Victor Matfield.
Either that or he just wanted to be able to put his words into actions as the Bulls forwards coach.
With a host of Springboks heading for the door at Loftus, the Bulls are going to need Matfield's experience.
Whether or not the former world-class lock can replicate the exploits of Brad Thorn will be an interesting sidebar to the Bulls story.
Taranaki Daily News