Every year the five New Zealand Super XV franchises unleash a host of new talent on the world of rugby, and this year looks even more exciting than most. Here’s a quick look at at some of the real rising stars of New Zealand rugby.
The Blues have potential to burn this year, with new coach John Kirwan being forced to blood a truck-load of young players following a disastrous campaign last year and a number of senior players leaving the region.
Charles Piutau has been in the Auckland system for a couple of years now, but really broke out in last year’s ITM Cup, playing a huge role in his side’s journey to the final. The top try-scorer at the 2011 IRB Junior World Cup for New Zealand, the 21-year old product of Wesley College has a default setting which encourages him to attack at every opportunity, ensuring Kirwan’s Blues will pose a threat from anywhere on the field this year. Big, powerful and lightning quick, Piutau is blessed with all the natural attributes needed to make it to the very top level of Rugby, and he could well be seen in a black jersey in coming years.
Tana Umaga inspired his Counties-Manukau Steelers to a captivating win in the ITM Cup’s second tier Championship last year, and their scintillating form earned a number of them Super Rugby contracts. Midfielder Bundee Aki impressed the powers-that-be at the reigning Super XV champion Chiefs so much that Dave Rennie relegated Jackson Willison to the draft, content to risk the veteran of 39 Super Rugby games to secure the services of the 22-year old Aki.
A member of the Chiefs’ wider training group in 2012 Aki has big boots to fill in Hamilton following the departure of the game-breaking Sonny Bill Williams, but with a combination of silky skills, exceptional footwork and raw physicality Aki promises to bring his own style to Rennie’s side as they look to defend their title.
The Canterbury Rugby Union had their eye on Jimmy Tupou some time ago, originally attempting to secure the services of the promising blindside/lock ahead of the 2012 ITM Cup. It was the Steelers who ended up with his signature, with Tupou turning out to be another young player who shone in Umaga’s all-conquering Counties side.
A member of New Zealand’s U20 side which finished runners-up in last year’s IRB Junior World Cup Tupou has been described as a cross between Jonah Lomu and Sonny Bill Williams – size and power mixed with agility, speed and phenomenal ball skills. At 6’5” and 107kg Tupou will fill a vital utility role in Todd Blackadder’s Crusaders squad as the Red and Blacks look to improve on four successive finals appearances without a trophy.
As much as Jamie Joseph has attracted a wealth of experience to his new-look Highlanders squad it is depth which he really needs, and midfielder Jason Emery could be vital if his side is to make the play-offs this year, particularly given the recent injury to All Black Tamati Ellison.
Born in Bay of Plenty Emery soon found himself in the Manawatu, where he ended up being named in the Turbos squad while still at school. Having represented New Zealand Secondary Schools the 19 year-old, whilst reasonably diminutive in stature, has boundless potential, and may well be called in to action on a regular basis as the Highlanders look to add some x-factor to their tradesman-like game plan.
Rounding out my list of players to watch for 2013 is the freakishly gifted Ardie Savea. At just 19 Savea, younger brother of All Black Julian, has already represented New Zealand on the IRB Sevens circuit and played ten times for Wellington in the 2012 ITM Cup, scoring 7 tries in the process.
A 6’3” ball of muscle the loose-forward runs like an outside back and is brutal on defence, offering the ability to cover blindside, openside and number 8. Without doubt Savea is destined for big things in New Zealand rugby, and I’m convinced he will make a huge impact in Super Rugby this year and will thrive in an environment which has been rejuvenated since Mark Hammett cut ties with the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu.
Of course, there will also be some bolters who come from nowhere to impress for the New Zealand sides this year, but the players above have the potential to be genuine superstars of the future, and I can’t wait to seem them cut loose!
When I first laid eyes on the draw I immediately looked to see where England had landed. Not based solely on their performances against us the weekend before, although that certainly made their stocks rise.
But England are definitely the best team from the second tier of seeds, so their group would inevitably be considered the toughest.
But a split second after I had ascertained that we’d avoided the Poms I wanted, in fact desperately needed, to know where the French had ended up.
Group D, which features the French, the Irish and the Italians, is an interesting one. Ireland will feel they’re a good chance to beat the French and win the group, but Italy, particularly after a brave showing against the All Blacks and the narrowest of losses to the Wallabies, will feel they’ve got a decent shot at beating at least one of their 6-nations colleagues and sneaking through to the next round.
So much will hinge on that game between France and Ireland. If we assume Italy won’t cause an upset, the loser of that game is destined to be the All Blacks’ opponent in the quarter-final, and while Ireland in the UK will be a tough proposition, the thought of meeting the French so early in the knock-out phase has already got Kiwis biting their finger nails!
Of course, that’s assuming we win our group. But of all the groups, ours is probably the most clear-cut. Argentina have improved vastly and benefitted hugely from their first season in the Rugby Championship, and it’s inevitable that one day in the not-too-distant future they will topple the All Blacks.
But I don’t think that will happen in the World Cup, when the men in black will be focused and prepared, particularly for that clash against the Pumas, which will be by far the most important game of the Group phase for them.
To many sides Tonga could prove a stumbling block, with their fierce physicality a shock to the system, particularly for the Northern Hemisphere sides. But the All Blacks play against Polynesian players week in, week out, and are used to that level of intensity in the tackle, and the flair they bring on attack. So there’s no chance the Tongans will cause an upset, and we should, barring a massive upset, win the group relatively comfortably.
The top half of the pool, which will produce the All Blacks’ Semi-Final opponents, is much more open. In Group B the South Africans should prevail, and the Samoans should come through in second. But in Group A, immediately deemed the ‘Group of Death’, things are up for grabs.
Wales have been terrible of late, but a sound showing at the 2011 World Cup, positive performances during their tour of Australia, and a Six Nations title this year all showed how much talent this relatively young Welsh side boasts, and it wouldn’t take much of a change in fortunes for them to be competitive.
But the other two marquee sides, the English and the Aussies, will be huge hurdles for the Red Dragons. I believe those two sides will be two of the top three in the world by that stage, Australia having benefitted immensely from a challenging season this year which gave them the opportunity to blood new players, expose them to international rugby, and create some much needed depth, and the English simply because they looked so damn good against the All Blacks last week.
Anything could happen there, and I’ve got the feeling Wales might throw a spanner in the works by upsetting one of those two, which will make the match between England and Australia an absolute bumper event.
Regardless of what happens on that side of the pool though, let’s hope, from a one-eyed All Blacks’ supporter’s point of view, that all their games are torrid, physically demanding affairs! For New Zealand, it’s hard to complain about the draw, but we will forever be wary of our World Cup nemesis, the French.
A couple of things I heard last week got me thinking about perception and reality. The first came from David Campese, and the second from my mate Craig, a Kiwi living in Sydney.
Campese, the controversial Wallaby-great who still holds the world record for most test tries, came out with a stinging attack on Australian coach Robbie Deans in the week leading up to their clash with England at Twickenham, accusing the New Zealand-born Deans of destroying Australian rugby.
Craig, who had popped back over the Tasman to catch up with friends for a week, got talking one night about Australian’s in general, and the expectations they have of the Wallabies. He reckoned the guys he watched the Bledisloe tests with in Sydney were genuinely surprised each and every time the Wallabies failed to beat the All Blacks, and that they truly believed they were the better side, and hence the best side in the world.
This helped a lot of things click in to place for me, and led me to believe that the Aussies are totally blind to the reality of the current state of Wallaby Rugby. Now, personally I don’t think Robbie Deans is the right man for them moving forward, but, despite all the drama he’s been embroiled in and the horrific streak of injuries his side has endured, he still guided them to second in the inaugural Rugby Championship, a draw against the World Champions and a win at Twickenham.
So if Campo thinks Deans has systematically destroyed Australian rugby, where did he think they were starting from? It’s not as though they were thumping all-in-sundry by 50 points every outing until Deans took the reins. I understand that Campese is upset about the style the Wallabies have adopted as much as the results they’ve achieved, but in all reality they’re still one of the best teams in the world, ranked in the top couple and one of the best four or five on any given day.
Australians in general have always aimed high when it comes to their sporting aspirations, and it’s that die-hard faith in their ability to reach the top that helps them to excel in so many different arenas. But there is a distinct difference between aspiring to be great, and misleading yourself in to believing you’re already there.
From the lads watching alongside Craig in Manly, to legendary figures like David Campese, Australians seem to think they are the world’s leading Rugby nation. I respect the Wallabies, but the fact remains that they’ve only got 13 or 14 decent players (most of whom are backs or openside flankers), a flawed system which fails to recognise, develop and retain talented young players, and huge personalities which are constantly clashing.
I’m all for setting your sights high, but if the Aussies want to delude themselves in to thinking they’re currently the best team in the world, and that they should be beating New Zealand each and every time they face them, they’re in for some long hard years full of disappointment!
As Canterbury claimed their fifth consecutive national championship with victory in last Saturday’s ITM Cup final, debate began about where this current side sits in comparison to other great provincial teams in New Zealand Rugby’s rich history, with most commentators believing the question really boils down to how they compare to the Auckland side of the late 80’s, early 90’s.
That Auckland team was truly phenomenal. Beginning their historic reign in 1985 when they wrested the Ranfurly Shield from a Canterbury side that was themselves a highly accomplished team, they went on to defend the shield a record 61 times, holding it until 1993.
In the NPC, they were equally unrivalled, claiming four consecutive titles on two different occasions, between ’87 and ’90, and ’93 and ’96. On paper, they were a fantastic side, with almost no weak points. Across the space of a decade that boasted such legendary names as Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Michael Jones, Zinzan and Robin Brooke, John Kirwan, Joe Stanley, Grant Fox and Carlos Spencer.
And while the silverware they claimed backs up their position in history, the way they won reinforces it further. Week in, week out, the Auckland side of the late 80’s – early 90’s thumped their opponents. In fact, they were so dominant that rugby in New Zealand became boringly, dangerously, predictable, a testament to the utter control they yielded over their competition.
Overall, I think in terms of their playing roster, and the way they so efficiently dispatched their opposition in such resounding fashion for most of a decade, that Auckland team cannot be matched.
But I do think the men in the famous red and black jersey surpass them in some areas, particularly when you look at their achievements, and the hurdles they’ve had to climb to get there.
When Auckland reigned supreme there was no Super Rugby competition, and no SANZAR agreement. Hence, the commitments the players faced were far less – test matches were less frequent, and were scheduled around the NPC, while the national competition, which acted as the countries’ premier tournament, was a priority for players.
Canterbury have won their five titles in a completely different era, when All Blacks are wrapped in cotton-wool and feature very sporadically, if at all, in the ITM Cup, while others take extended rests following the arduous Super Rugby calendar.
This should create more of a level playing field, with teams all forced to field locally-grown talent, yet Canterbury have still managed to prevail. This year alone they contested their entire campaign without the services of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, and Kieran Reid, to name just a few, whilst also reeling in the face of a chronic string of injuries.
Of course, there was also the earthquake, and while I’m sure the rest of the country is sick of hearing about it, the fact the Cantabrians managed to remain dominant, despite their home ground being obliterated, and the bulk of their players personally affected in one way or another, speaks volumes about the resolve and determination of the red and blacks.
Victory this season was a huge ask for two new coaches – Tabai Matson and Scott Robertson – who were standing squarely in the shadow of Rob Penney’s legacy. To get up and win, without so many of their top line players at their disposal, in a competition which is increasingly tight and evenly contested, points to something in the Canterbury system which sets it apart from all others – a winning culture, a level of professionalism which is currently unmatched, and a focus on the development of depth and talent within the wider squad.
Both sides are great in their own way, and I don’t really think it’s fair to give the nod to one or the other, but this current Canterbury side is certainly right up there as one of the best provincial teams we have ever seen. Taking a broader view, I think there can be no question that the Canterbury organisation, which encompasses the Crusaders and the ITM Cup side, and has been responsible for creating the depth of talent and the incredible culture, is second to none, and has taken professionalism in rugby to a whole new level in New Zealand.
But while these particular players have thrived, in a country that is as rich in depth and talent as New Zealand is currently, there are inevitably those that have fallen by the wayside at the same time. Some had their chances and failed to impress, while others have been dreadfully unlucky with injuries.
Here’s my All Black 15 picked from players who were once in the mix, but now seem to have dropped off the radar.
1. Jamie McIntosh 2. Hika Elliot 3. Neemia Tialata 4. Anthony Boric 5. Isaac Ross 6. George Whitelock 7. Matt Todd 8. Daniel Braid 9. Brendan Leonard 10. Colin Slade 11. Rudi Wulf 12. Ben Atiga 13. Rene Ranger 14. Richard Kahui 15. Isaia Toeava
Jamie McIntosh – When he burst on to the scene in 2004 it looked like we had found the next hulking prop to take over the mantle vacated by Carl Hayman, but his International career failed to come to anything of note, and he has been consigned to playing a prominent role in the provincial competition as leader of the Southland Stags.
Hika Elliot – Elliot is obviously still in the mix, but I can’t helping thinking that, given how long he’s been around, he has under-achieved by not having established himself as a regular in the All Blacks. With 3 caps under his belt and having been a tourist with the ABs on a number of occasions he is someone the national selectors obviously saw potential in, but, by desperately hanging on to veterans like Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and even Corey Flynn, they’re giving a pretty clear indication that they don’t have faith in Hawkes Bay’s hooker.
Neemia Tialata – Now Tialata did establish himself, becoming a prominent fixture in teams as recently as 3-4 years ago. But he quickly dropped out of the frame as the Franks brothers developed, and while only in his early 30s he is now plying his trade in Europe.
Anthony Boric – Boric had plenty of opportunities, and although injury also played its part, he simply failed to capitalise on those opportunities, allowing youngsters like Sam Whitelock, and now Retallick and Romano, to take over from Ali Williams and Chris Jack, a position he himself was in line for.
Isaac Ross – One of the players that embodies what this team is about! He stormed on to the scene, playing 8 tests in a break-out season, and even being given the responsibility of calling the lineouts in his first season in the black jersey. But his physical limitations soon became apparent, and, as quickly as he had arrived on the scene he was gone again, flirting with three different Super franchises before disappearing to Japan.
George Whitelock – Whitelock is a player who has never quite lived up to the reputation he brought with him when he first appeared as a professional player. Having captained New Zealand at under-age level he was widely tipped to become a prominent All Black, but since making his debut off the bench in 2009 he hasn’t featured in the national side, with brother Sam quickly surpassing his own achievements.
Matt Todd – Todd may still scale the lofty heights of international rugby, but I’ve included him here because he came agonisingly close to doing just that, before appearing to drop swiftly out of the reckoning. Had Richie McCaw been forced to pull out of the Rugby World Cup Todd would almost certainly have found himself in the squad, and probably wearing the 7 jersey, but now, not even a year down the track, he is in the wilderness, with young Sam Cane getting the nod ahead of him, and little mention of his name by new All Black coach Steve Hansen and his staff.
Daniel Braid – For want of a genuine number 8 I’ve thrown in Dan Braid, who I’m sure can do the job for my side! Braid had more than his fair share of opportunities, but in the end it became apparent that he was a very sound Super Rugby player, making valuable contributions to both the Blues and the Reds, but was not quite test-calibre.
Brendan Leonard – Leonard arrived on the scene in the mid-2000s, and it’s somewhat ironic that while he was once the young upstart pushing the established Byron Kelleher for a starting jersey at Waikato, he is now struggling to get the nod ahead of up-and-comer Tawera Kerr-Barlow. He had his opportunities in the black jersey, but failed to do enough with them to establish himself as a regular.
Colin Slade – Slade’s unlucky to be here; indeed, he was in line to shroud himself in world cup glory before yet another injury cruelly ruled him out. But, while he’s been recovering from numerous set-backs Beauden Barrett has burst in to the mix, and Slade now sits, at best, in fourth, behind Barrett, Cruden and the incumbent Carter.
Rudi Wulf – When Wulf got his opportunity in the black jersey the wing positions in the All Blacks were up for grabs. But he failed to set the world on fire, and at just 28 is unlikely to ever represent New Zealand again, having opted to continue his career in France.
Ben Atiga – Atiga had a legion of fans in the Auckland rugby community, and was touted as the next big thing by many. Called in to the 2003 World Cup squad he ended up playing just one test, before retiring from rugby in 2008 at the tender age of 26.
Rene Ranger – Ranger’s the Vice-Captain of my team, and is one of the guys who ticks all my selection criteria! On his day he is unbelievable, and obviously has the skills and natural attributes to play at international level. But his lack of professionalism, both on and off the field, has curtailed that international career, and it remains to be seen whether he will get another chance in the black jersey, or will forever represent a classic case of ‘what might have been’.
Richard Kahui – Kahui, like Colin Slade, has been desperately unlucky with injuries. Every time he dons the black jersey he looks good, but those occasions are so infrequent that we really don’t know whether he can consistently deliver at the top level or not. A lack of depth in the All Black midfield at the moment might provide Kahui with another opportunity in the future, but every month players in this talent-rich country sit on the sidelines injured is another month when the next big thing might break out and take the opportunity themselves.
Isaia Toeava – The captain of my team! This IRB Junior Player of the Year was former national coach Wayne Smith’s ‘pet project’ and has incredible talent. He was often outstanding at Super level, yet seemed to choke under the weight of expectation when taking the field for the All Blacks. Toeava had all the natural attributes to make him a great All Black, but, while only in his mid-20s now, it looks all-but-certain that his test playing days are over.
So there’s the starting line-up for my ‘Where Are They Now XV’, and I must say it’s a solid looking squad – in fact, I reckon they’d give the Wallabies a touch up!