The Chiefs enter the new season aiming to match the last Super Rugby title hat-trick, achieved by Crusaders from 1998-2000.
As Super Rugby gears up for return, Waikato Chiefs eye title hat-trick
The future of the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition will be hammered out behind closed doors this season but on the field the Waikato Chiefs will hope for more of the status quo as they bid for a hat-trick of titles.
The Australian, South African and New Zealand unions have a June deadline to present a unified product to broadcasters, with the current rights deal set to expire in 2015.
The need for change is about the only thing agreed to, and the rival unions face a bruising round of negotiations to produce a format that can rejuvenate the 15-team competition which has placed a heavy emphasis on local derbies in the current broadcast agreement.
“How the money is split up is really critical,” New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew told New Zealand media this week.
“You’ve got three parties wanting something out of a structure and if one does better than the others then there’s going to have to be a conversation somewhere.”
Competing proposals have advocated expansion, with one of the more adventurous shake-ups pushing Australia and New Zealand into a single conference and South Africa into a second conference with a team from Argentina.
A radically different format involving far less travel for competing teams may emerge, but until 2016, players will continue to rack up the frequent flyer miles in the world’s most gruelling rugby tournament.
The Dave Rennie-coached Chiefs have set the example of how to negotiate an arduous season of long-haul flights and an endless procession of hotel rooms, and deservedly enter 2014 as favourites.
Despite winning their maiden title in 2012 with a combination of class and blue collar grit, respect has been a long time coming for the Chiefs, who were tipped to fail in their title defence.
Seven-times champions, the Crusaders, were backed heavily last year but their campaign ended with a heart-breaking 20-19 loss in a semi-final thriller to the Chiefs, who then sealed their title defence in front of home fans with a comeback victory over the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies.
Though the competition kicks off quietly on Saturday with two South Africa derbies, it roars into life the following week when the Chiefs face the Crusaders in their opening clash at Christchurch’s AMI stadium (February 21).
Their rivalry may well define the season, with the winner of the powerful New Zealand conference a good bet to sew up a semi-final on home soil in the play-offs.
Rennie has lost last year’s co-captain Craig Clarke, but All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden, the team’s top player in both their championship years, steps up to the role with Liam Messam as the Chiefs bid to match the Crusaders’ hat-trick of titles from 1998-2000.
The 25-year-old Cruden has cemented his place as Dan Carter’s understudy in the All Blacks set-up, and has free rein to press his claim as the country’s top flyhalf while the 31-year-old Crusader takes a six-month break from the game.
Rennie has also enticed former skipper Mils Muliaina, a 100-cap All Black, back from Japan while luring Crusaders backs Robbie Fruean and Tom Marshall north in a blow against the South Island team.
Comebacks and glamour recruits have dominated the leadup in all three conferences, with rugby league convert Benji Marshall’s ability to adapt to the 15-man code under heavy scrutiny at the Auckland Blues.
Former Wallabies flanker David Pocock, once rated one of the world’s best opensides, makes a long-anticipated comeback with the Brumbies after his 2013 season was all but wiped out by a serious knee injury.
Combative loose forward Schalk Burger returns to the Cape Town-based Stormers after two years out of Super Rugby, while former Springbok lock Victor Matfield has re-joined the Bulls at the age of 36 after three years out of the competition.
The three-times champion Bulls reached the semi-finals last year to finish the strongest of South Africa’s sides, but are tipped to struggle without departed flyhalf Morne Steyn and a raft of seasoned players who have left for foreign leagues.
Durban’s Sharks, who finished eighth last year and missed the play-offs, are favoured to restore South African pride and have Jake White pulling the strings after luring the World Cup-winning former Springboks coach away from the Brumbies in the off-season.
The Brumbies, now mentored by former Wallabies flyhalf Stephen Larkham, are expected to battle the 2011 champion Queensland Reds for the Australian conference, though the New South Wales Waratahs, bolstered by marquee backline recruit Kurtley Beale, may prove a nuisance for both teams’ campaigns.