Final Super 14 season readies for kick off

The last season of Super 14 kicks off on Friday with the Crusaders and the Bulls once again the teams to beat.

The southern hemisphere’s annual provincial championship will be re-shaped and expanded to 15 teams from 2011 but for now the focus remains on 2010 with six local derbies featuring in the opening round.

The Crusaders have won seven of the 14 Super rugby tournaments contested since the game turned professional after the 1995 World Cup, including three of the last five.

They made the semifinals last year despite being without the services of their goalkicking flyhalf Dan Carter and their long-term coach Robbie Deans, who defected to Australia.

The Crusaders will be without their captain Richie McCaw, who has been given the first three rounds off to rest, for their opening match against the Highlanders on Saturday but such is their depth that All Blacks loose forward Kieran Read has been able to take over as skipper.

Read said the opening match of the season was always an uncertain time for every team in the competition no matter how successful they had been in the past.

“You haven’t got the analysis tools that you have later on, but you have just got to be prepared,” Read told the New Zealand rugby website (allblacks.com).

“The team that’s best prepared themselves is going to win rather than the team that knows the opposition the best.”

Title defence
New Zealand teams have dominated the competition, with the Blues winning the title three times and Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders reaching the final once each.

South Africa and Australia have provided one winner each, the Bulls and the Brumbies, who have both won the tournament twice.

The Pretoria-based Bulls gave South Africa their first Super 14 winners when they beat the Sharks in the 2007 final, then won it again last season, defeating the Chiefs in the decider.

The Bulls will be without Springbok wing Bryan Habana this season after he switched to the Stormers but will be strong favourites to open their title defence with a win against the Cheetahs, who have finished no better than 10th since joining the competition.

“The Cheetahs and Bulls always seem to bring out the best in each other,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke told the team’s official website (www.thebulls.co.za).

“Our preparations went well and we are happy that we will start the competition with the right frame of mind and body.”

The Waratahs have been Australia’s best side in recent years, reaching the final in 2005 and again in 2008, but the Brumbies are lurking as the country’s best hope this season.

The Brumbies, champions in 2001 and 2004, have struggled since the retirement of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham in 2007 but have recruited Wallaby captain Rocky Elsom and test flyhalf Matt Giteau for this year.

The tournament kicks off on Friday with three matches, one each in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, starting with the Blues against the Hurricanes, which has been moved to Albany while Eden Park is undergoing renovations ahead of next year’s World Cup.

The remaining four matches are on Saturday, finishing with the Sharks hosting last year’s runners-up the Chiefs in Durban.—Reuters

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