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Super XIV: Chasing the champions

With the loss of several key players and coaches, Super 14 title holders the Crusaders are there to be shot at this season. We previews the most unpredictable campaign for years.

An air of the unknown swept over the Super 14, as the annual southern hemisphere showpiece kicked off in February.

The impact some key personnel departures, most notably in New Zealand, will have on the 14th edition promises to add a much needed element of mystery to a championship that has become predictable in recent years.

Although the Bulls took advantage of Graham Henry's since discredited All Black reconditioning programme to bag South Africa's first title two years back, normal service resumed last term.

The crown returned to New Zealand hands, and back to the Crusaders, who completed their seventh title in 13 seasons.

The New Zealand hegemony over the tournament faces its biggest test given the unprecedented player turnover from last season with 55 of the 140 players in the country's five teams being newcomers to Super rugby.

Perhaps the biggest changes have come at the Crusaders, with the seven-time champions starting 2009 with a new man at the helm, former skipper Todd Blackadder, who became only the team's fourth coach in 14 years after he was appointed to succeed Robbie Deans.

As if following on from Super rugby's most successful coach isn't challenge enough, Blackadder faces life without Dan Carter, convalescing after his Catalan sabbatical was cut short by knee damage.

Flight of the Crusaders

While the defending champions still have All Black skipper Richie McCaw on their books, Carter was part of a 10-players exodus.

In those circumstances, the locals can be forgiven for setting their expectations a tad lower in Christchurch this year.

But who can dethrone them?

Of the New Zealand contingent, the Hurricanes appear most likely, having featured in four of the last six semi-finals.

But the Hurricanes have had their chance to win this tournament before and never pulled it off.

They at least have a more settled and established starting combination than the Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders. The Highlanders, who won just twice last term, have turned over 38 players in three years and will finish close to bottom.

That fate could befall the Blues too, despite early optimism after the long-awaited appointment of Pat Lam as coach.

The former Samoan skipper achieved some notable deeds with Auckland in the Air New Zealand Cup, winning that tournament twice as well as the Ranfurly Challenge shield. Lam's first task has been to replace departed troops with the Blues' biggest loss unquestionably being Nick Evans to Harlequins.

The enormity of the gap Evans left has been underlined by the gambles Lam has had to take to replace him. Former Chiefs and Hurricanes players respectively, Tasesa Lavea and Jimmy Gopperth, are being tried, but both have failed at this level before.

In Carter's absence, Stephen Donald starts the Super 14 as New Zealand's premier resident No.10. He will need to live up to that billing if he is to lead the under-performing Chiefs to what would be just their second semi-final position.

While the Chiefs have stood by coach Ian Foster ahead of his record sixth season in charge, questions are being asked as to the rationale behind his retention given that Warren Gatland was over-looked in order to keep Foster.

The rejection worked out for Gatland, and the Super 14 could yet provide the stage for the biggest career triumph of another Kiwi coaching reject with Welsh links.

Sharks looking dangerous

Former Wellington and one-time Swansea coach coach John Plumtree, who first ‘discovered' the talent of Gavin Henson, took Wellington to NPC finals in 2003, 2004 and 2006 before heading for the exit, figuring that the coaching pathway in his country of birth was blocked.

It is a move that is increasingly looking like a winner, after the former loose forward was co-opted to assist Dick Muir with the Sharks last term prior to coaching the Natal side himself in the domestic South African Currie Cup.

The Sharks made the semi-finals last season before Plumtree guided Natal to their first Currie Cup title in 12 years. Such a pedigree bodes well for their prospects in 2009, which have been boosted further by the combination of a stable squad and a favourable draw.

The Durbanites play just four on tour this year, and return to South Africa for their final seven which includes hosting each of the other three semi-finalists of last year at the Absa Stadium where they have lost just three in the last three seasons.

Of the other South African sides, the Stormers were the big improvers last term.

First-season coach Rassie Erasmus appeared the wrong man after he presided over three straight defeats to start with.

Fortunately the side made rapid improvement on their overseas tour, winning three of four to build up a level of momentum that brought them to within a bonus point of their first semi-final visit in four years.

For the Bulls, who won the title two years ago, last year's drop to 10th was largely anticipated following the departure of coach Heyneke Meyer, alongside the introduction of the ELVs, which were anathema to their one-dimensional playing style.

With a settled squad and inspirational skipper Victor Matfield now back in harness following his flirtation with Toulon, improvement can be expected although they may still struggle away from Pretoria.

An inability to win away will almost certainly again curtail the efforts of the Cheetahs and Lions, who were the bottom two in 2008.

The Cheetahs have lost all 13 matches played outside South Africa since they returned to the competition in 2006, while the Lions have won just 26 per cent of their matches throughout their Super rugby history.

Neither statistic offers comfort for the year ahead, especially given that the two highveld sides are fielding similar teams to last term.

The same is true of the Queensland Reds, who were more competitive in 2008 than their three wins and 12th placing showed.

Former Blues flanker Daniel Braid is their only notable acquisition but second-season Queensland coach Phil Mooney will be hoping his side can maintain a competitive streak which saw them finish within seven points of three semi-finalists last year.

The Western Force should have higher aspirations, especially after winning two in each of South Africa and New Zealand last term.

How their season unfolds on the field may ultimately be determined by the settling of affairs off it.

Before the season kicked off coach John Mitchell found himself the subject of an official enquiry after widespread complaints from staff and players over his management style.

Force under pressure

In effect, the Force were searching for sufficient grounds to terminate the controversial Mitchell, given that he still has three years to run on his existing contract, and so would be eligible for a massive payout should his removal be deemed unjustifiable.

This uncertainty hardly lent itself to pre-season preparations as the Force sought to rectify last year's collapse where they lost four of the final seven.

The Waratahs will also field a similar side to the one that reached last season's final, minus departed trio, lock Dan Vickerman, flanker Rocky Elsom and No.8 David Lyons.

Even without those three the Sydneysiders' squad still features 13 of the Wallaby squad that performed well in Europe during the autumn.

At the ACT Brumbies, Andy Friend has returned from Harlequins to take over in Canberra, and he has recruited smartly.

The arrival of Test hooker Stephen Moore from Queensland is a big plus. So too is the fact that Stirling Mortlock will start the year fully fit, after he missed much of last year through injury.

The Wallaby skipper has handed over the Brumbies captaincy to flankler Stephen Hoiles, but still promises to wield a huge influence, especially as a point-scorer where he starts the competition 87 short of becoming the first player to break 1,000 Super rugby points.

This story was sourced from International Rugby News