Super squad building and why Cheika needs time
NSW Waratahs coach Michael Cheika (Image: Supplied)
When the five New Zealand Super franchises announce their squads this morning, the crystal-ball gazing into next year’s competition can begin in earnest.
Mix in the start of the pre-seasons for the Australian franchises this week and the sense grows that the first foundations are being laid.
There will be a host of new names to digest among the Kiwi squads, with those prominent from New Zealand’s under-20 campaign this being fed into the system after a spell in ITM Cup.
But most interest will surround the composition of the Blues and the Highlanders, for opposing reasons.
Eyes will scan over the Blues’ list and the question “Who are these blokes?” will soon follow, while one look at the Highlanders squad will convince some that they are finals-bound.
The likes of Ma’a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn have signed up with Jamie Joseph’s men while the Blues will have to rely on Baden Kerr and Ronald Raaymakers.
Accordingly money will flow towards the Dunedin-based franchise to make the finals, while the Blues will take on the unfamiliar role of rank outsiders. I’d hesitate before placing that Highlanders bet. Experience is a wonderful thing but a roster of Test veterans is no guarantee of Super Rugby success.
Ask the Waratahs about that – or, to a lesser degree, the Crusaders over the past five years.
In fact, it’s one of Michael Cheika’s biggest challenges.
The issue of the number of Waratahs players in the Test squad throughout the year is one that has provoked a fair bit of heat.
But it’s not as simple as them being “rewarded” for a poor season, and also more complex than “they have a lot of Test players so they’ll be successful at Super Rugby”.
The likes of Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson and Wycliff Palu feed straight into the national team because they have long proven themselves at the Super level.
They were playing in Super Rugby finals and semi-finals years ago. They have been through the auditioning period the likes of Hugh Pyle, Sam Carter and others are going through.
There is no Test coach in work today who would jettison that experience, even if the players were in an underperforming provincial unit.
Similarly, when James Horwill comes back next year, he won’t have to be the “form” second-rower of the Australian conference to win back his Wallabies place, nor should he be. His qualities at the elite level are already well known.
The difficulty these players now face – and it is a challenging one – is playing at a consistently high level over a long Super and Test season. No one can be at their peak from February to December, or even close to it. Even the Reds, who are by general consensus the most adroitly managed group, struggled to repeat 2011′s intensity this year.
New Zealand has a long established way of dealing with this – they simply yank their established players out of Super Rugby and tell them to put their feet up, to the detriment of the franchises concerned and the benefit of the All Blacks.
A different lie of the land in Australia prevents such dramatic interventions, but the same issues apply. Super sides heavy with Test caps carry their own burdens.
So while NSW and the Reds, who together make up more than two-thirds of the Wallabies squad for Europe, are fretting about the welfare of their players on tour, the other three franchises are happily plotting against them with fuller squads.
Brumbies management might not have been altogether distraught that some of their players missed out.
The extra planning time did them no harm in 2012.
Similarly, look at this year’s Super champions, the Chiefs, for further evidence of the disconnect between the number of Test front-liners and Super success.
At the start of the campaign they had only one player, Richard Kahui, who was a starting All Black.
The key for them – apart from the sharp coaching – the number of other hungry players who wanted to be one.
This is not to say that expectations of the Waratahs shouldn’t be high. The carrot of the British and Irish Lions arriving before the Super season even ends should guarantee that their big players are playing closer to their peak than they were this season.
But Cheika is going to need time.
Turning that side into Super challengers, and refreshing the squad to his liking, is more than a 12-month job.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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