The Chiefs and Highlanders have been the big draft/transfer market movers, the Blues have steadfastly stuck to their (pop)guns and the Crusaders and Hurricanes have unveiled what appear to be New Zealand’s outstanding squads based strongly on their successful provincial heavyweights.
That’s the upshot of today’s announcement of New Zealand’s five Super 14 lineups for 2009, which in turn was the outcome of a frantic day of horse-trading from the five coaches at NZRU headquarters.
It’s hard to shake the feeling, too, that the more things change the more they stay the same.
As usual, the defending champion Crusaders have come up with a cast-iron lineup consisting almost exclusively of talent from within the region, with one or two recently imported additions. Todd Blackadder has dipped into the draft for just one player — backup hooker Jason Macdonald of Otago — and has 22 Cantabs in his squad, including Wellington flanker Thomas Waldrom and Northland fullback Jared Payne who have both made the move south.
There is, of course, no Dan Carter in the Crusaders next year, but in Stephen Brett and Colin Slade they have more than adequate stand-ins. There are also seven touring All Blacks as well as the sidelined Leon MacDonald, and former international Casey Laulala in the squad.
If anything Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper has announced a squad even stronger than the Crusaders, certainly on the depth front.
Like Blackadder, Cooper has seen fit to draft just one player — impressive Southland midfielder Jason Kawau — and has plucked the best from the three well-performed unions in his region. Naturally, Air NZ Cup runnersup Wellington dominate the selection with 19 players, three coming from Hawke’s Bay (though they have five more scattered around via the draft), four from Taranaki and flanker Josh Bradnock from Manawatu.
With the Canes, it was more about who they left out, with both the Chiefs and Highlanders greedily helping themselves to leftovers from the region.
Cooper appears to have assembled an outstanding squad, with 10 touring All Blacks and a good mix of experienced old heads and new up-and-comers, including a half-dozen who have yet to taste rugby at this level.
Most importantly the Canes squad is deep, with Cooper seeming to have plenty of options in all positions, with the loose forward contingent, midfield and back three all looking like they will be highly competitive.
Blues coach Pat Lam has pretty much shrugged off the poor form of his three feeder provinces and backed himself to get the best out of talent that badly under-performed in the Air NZ Cup.
Lam has drafted just one player from outside the region — young Wellington inside back Michael Hobbs — and has stuck largely with the players from within the region who failed to fire at Air NZ Cup time.
Lam has 19 Aucklanders, six North Harbour players and just two from Northland in his squad, though to be fair the Auckland contingent includes big-name transfers Ali Williams, Paul Williams, Tasesa Lavea and Josh Blackie, as well as All Blacks John Afoa, Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino and Joe Rokocoko who were available only sparingly in this year’s campaign.
Northland veteran Justin Collins has been persuaded to front for one more campaign, while his provincial team-mate Rene Ranger is the only other from kauri country to make the Blues.
There are 11 first-time Blues and six players named in a Super 14 squad for the first time, but Lam is confident he has the makings of a competitive squad, despite the poor form of his feeder unions.
"Over the years Air NZ Cup or NPC form hasn’t necessarily translated into what’s happened in the Super 14," said Lam.
"The key thing here is we have 28 talented individuals and their challenge is to come together as a team. We’re really passionate and excited about going out there and making it happen. We’re not looking to hide from the facts, our aim is to win the Super 14."
Chiefs coach Ian Foster will have his work cut out getting his side into title contention in 2009, with 12 newcomers to the franchise, five draft players and six Super 14 rookies in his squad which has a distinctly new look about it.
The Chiefs have snaffled outstanding Hawke’s Bay hooker Hika Elliot via the draft, though he’s by no means their only classy pickup. Taranaki lock Craig Clarke and Wellington openside Serge Lilo should contend for starting spots, while Otago halfback Toby Morland and Southland first five/fullback James Wilson are capable backups.
They have also snared highly promising Hawke’s Bay prop Arizona Taumalolo who has come in via one of those confusing transfer and loan back arrangements.
Foster admitted the Chiefs would have their work cut out coming together quickly, especially with so much experience lost in his tight five. They have three newcomers at prop and two in the second row, and forwards coach Craig Stevenson is going to have his work cut out forging a competitive pack.
"There is a challenge in the coming months to get this new group working together and working hard to get the results we need in this area," said Foster.
Highlanders coach Glenn Moore has predictably leant heavily on the Hawke’s Bay influence of his new assistant Peter Russell, bringing in George Naoupu, Matt Berquist, Jason Shoemark and Israel Dagg from the Magpies via the draft, along with Clint Newland who was already secured via a transfer deal.
Wellington prop Anthony Perenise is the fifth draft player, though Hayden Tiggs (Manawatu), Jayden Hayward (Taranaki), Johnny Leota (Manawatu) and Fetu’u Vainikolo (Northland) have all been transferred into the region.
The well-performed Southland Stags have eight players in the Highlanders squad (plus another two scattered round in the draft) and Otago 15 (including the four transferred men).
The Highlanders look solid up front and at halfback, though will have their work cut out coming up with a backline capable of getting the job done at this level. Dagg is an excellent pickup and may solve the side’s problems at fullback, but they still look shy of genuine quality on one wing, at centre and in the playmaking roles.
All told 30 players have been selected in a Super 14 squad for the first time and 13 have been drafted to other franchises.
Nine players return to the 2009 Super 14 after not being selected for the 2008 competition due to availability, injury or form.
Five sets of brothers will play in Super 14 New Zealand teams. They are: Jacob and Tamati Ellison, Ben and Owen Franks, Scott and Thomas Waldrom, Adam and George Whitelock, Ali and Jay Williams.
The 28-man Super 14 squads are as follows:
* Indicates player named in Super 14 squad for the first time. (D) Indicates draft player.
BLUES: Tony Woodcock (North Harbour) , John Afoa (Auckland), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland)*, Tevita Mailau (Auckland)* , Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Tom McCartney (Auckland), Ali Williams (Auckland), Anthony Boric (North Harbour), Jay Williams (Auckland)*, Kurtis Haiu (Auckland), Justin Collins (Northland), Josh Blackie (Auckland), Onosai Auva’a (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Chris Lowery (Auckland)*, Taniela Moa (Auckland), Chris Smylie (North Harbour), Tasesa Lavea (Auckland), Jimmy Gopperth (North Harbour), Michael Hobbs (Wellington) (D)*, Benson Stanley (Auckland), Jamie Helleur (Auckland), Anthony Tuitavake (North Harbour), Joe Rokocoko (Auckland), Rudi Wulf (North Harbour), Rene Ranger (Northland)*, Paul Williams (Auckland), Isaia Toeava (Auckland).
CHIEFS: Arizona Taumalolo (Waikato)*, Ben May (Waikato), James McGougan (Bay of Plenty)*, Joe Savage (Bay of Plenty)*,Hika Elliot (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Aled de Malmanche (Waikato), Kevin O’Neill (Waikato),Toby Lynn (Waikato), Craig Clarke (Taranaki) (D), Mark Burman (Waikato)*, Liam Messam (Waikato), Tanerau Latimer (Bay of Plenty), Serge Lilo (Wellington) (D)*, Sione Lauaki (Waikato), Colin Bourke (Bay of Plenty), Brendon Leonard (Waikato), Toby Morland (D) (Otago), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Michael Delany (Bay of Plenty), Callum Bruce (Waikato), Jackson Willison (Waikato)*, Richard Kahui (Waikato), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Waikato), Lelia Masaga (Counties Manukau), Sosene Anesi (Waikato), James Wilson (Southland) (D), Malili Muliaina (Waikato), Dwayne Sweeney (Waikato).
HURRICANES: John Schwalger (Wellington), Neemia Tialata (Wellington), Jacob Ellison (Wellington), Tim Fairbrother (Wellington), Andrew Hore (Taranaki) , Dane Coles (Wellington)*, Jason Eaton (Taranaki), Jeremy Thrush (Wellington), Bryn Evans (Hawke’s Bay), Api Naikatini (Wellington)*, Faifili Levave (Wellington), Scott Waldrom (Taranaki), Karl Lowe (Hawke’s Bay)*, Victor Vito (Wellington)*, Rodney So’oialo (Wellington), Josh Bradnock (Manawatu)*, Alby Mathewson (Wellington), Piri Weepu (Wellington), Willie Ripia (Taranaki), Dan Kirkpatrick (Wellington)*, Ma’a Nonu (Wellington), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Jason Kawau (Southland) (D), Tamati Ellison (Wellington), Hosea Gear (Wellington), David Smith (Wellington), Zac Guildford (Hawke’s Bay), Cory Jane (Wellington).
CRUSADERS: Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury), Ben Franks (Tasman), Owen Franks (Canterbury)*, Bronson Murray (Canterbury), Corey Flynn (Canterbury), Jason Macdonald (Otago) (D), Brad Thorn (Tasman), Ross Filipo (Canterbury), Isaac Ross (Canterbury), Michael Paterson (Canterbury), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Richie McCaw (Canterbury), George Whitelock (Canterbury), Thomas Waldrom (Canterbury), Nasi Manu (Canterbury), Jonathan Poff (Tasman), Andy Ellis (Canterbury), Kahn Fotuali’I (Tasman), Colin Slade (Canterbury)*, Stephen Brett (Canterbury), Tim Bateman (Canterbury), Ryan Crotty (Canterbury)*, Casey Laulala (Canterbury), Adam Whitelock (Canterbury)*, Kade Poki (Tasman), Sean Maitland (Canterbury), Jared Payne (Canterbury)*, Leon Macdonald (Canterbury).
HIGHLANDERS: Jamie Mackintosh (Southland), Clint Newland (Otago), Chris King (Southland), Anthony Perenise (Wellington) (D)*, David Hall (Southland), Jason Rutledge (Southland), Hayden Triggs (Otago), Tom Donnelly (Otago), Josh Bekhuis (Southland)*, Ross Kennedy (Otago), Adam Thomson (Otago), Tim Boys (Southland), Alando Soakai (Otago), Stephen Setephano (Otago), George Naoupu (Hawke’s Bay) (D)*, Jimmy Cowan (Southland), Sean Romans (Otago) *, Daniel Bowden (Otago), Matt Berquist (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Jayden Hayward (Otago)*, Johnny Leota (Otago), Kendrick Lynn (Southland)*, Brett Mather (Otago), Lucky Mulipola (Otago), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Otago), Ben Smith (Otago)*, Israel Dagg (Hawke’s Bay) (D)*.
The number of players from each province is as follows: Auckland (19), Bay of Plenty (5), Canterbury (22), Counties Manukau (1), Hawke’s Bay (8), Manawatu (1), North Harbour (6), Northland (2), Otago (17), Southland (10), Taranaki (5), Tasman (5), Waikato (17) and Wellington (22).