After a fortnight of Super Rugby warm-up matches some patterns have emerged that offer the promise of change.
John Kirwan was one of the greatest All Blacks and one of my favourite players. Kirwan on the one wing and Carel du Plessis on the other meant I’d always pick David Campese at fullback in what I viewed as the most lethal back three the game has produced. I still haven’t changed that view more than 20 years after first being convinced the three, individually, and as a unit, had it all.
I’ve followed Kirwan’s coaching career closely and I’ve always been impressed with his desire to learn new things, to embrace different languages and cultures and to immerse himself totally, at times to his detriment as his battles against depression have been as much a discussion on his coaching career, as has his rugby ability.
Kirwan has always been a believer in the game being about the ball and about creating attacking platforms. His teams, by design rather than because of any coaching limitations, have all thrilled with ball in hand but have never had the pedigree of player to back up style of play with results.
Italy was always the team closest to Kirwan after the All Blacks because he played so much of his career in Italy, married an Italian, spent much of his life between Italy and New Zealand and he embraced the Italian culture, language and lifestyle with the same enthusiasm he never denies what makes him an Aucklander.
After spells with Italy as assistant coach and head coach, Kirwan took on the challenge of Japan and they played some sensational rugby leading into the 2011 World Cup and especially at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand where the Japanese side threatened to beat France in a Pool game only to be undone in the final 10 minutes.
Kirwan’s teams scored tries and played the game at a tempo that made for a spectacle. His only downfall has always been the quality of player available in selection.
He has taken on the responsibility to restore credibility to the Blues franchise and reignite Super Rugby in the region that initially dominated the competition. It is a fantastic appointment and having All Blacks World Cup winning coach Graham Henry as a support structure adds gravitas to the idealism associated with Kirwan and his youthful Blues squad.
I am not expecting the fairytale of a play-off position with the Blues but I am expecting to want to watch the side play this season. The Blues, in the two pre-season matches against the Reds and Tahs, blooded 20 previously unknowns in Super Rugby and the youngsters produced the passion and innovation for which they were selected. They lacked defensive intensity, discipline of more mature teams and could be criticised for lacking in key areas as much as blossoming in others.
But what they achieved without question was to get people talking about the Blues again. It was the first victory for Kirwan and Henry.
Jake White, with the Brumbies, adopted a similar approach. He told the youngsters he picked that talk was irrelevant as was asking the public for support. He said support was earned through performance and their Super Rugby season in 2012 would be measured by how they could increase the home crowd attendance as much as it would be by league results.
He did do his maths though and if people were starting to watch again it usually meant something good was happening on the pitch.
There is enthusiasm of a Blues campaign not suffocated with pre-season doom and there is equal energy coming from within Sydney when it comes to the Tahs. Even Campo believes there is reason to be enthusiastic and he has expressed the view of the squad being semi-final potential and with a bit of luck winning the competition in 2012.
The Blues and the Tahs have two attack-minded coaches and this should add a dimension to the tournament. White’s progress with the Brumbies is a campaign within a campaign, as is Dave Rennie’s challenge in sustaining, possibly even improving, what was achieved with the Chiefs in 2012.
For the Highlanders and Reds the expectations are bigger. Jamie Joseph will feel the pressure of turning promise into something with a greater punch and Ewen McKenzie, the probable successor to Robbie Deans as national coach in the next six months, will be determined to have a year more consistent with the title-winning 2011 than the injury-plagued whippings of 2012.
The Canes offer the most promise in New Zealand’s conference with the only question mark still around the menace of the tight five and the depth of those asked to stoke the fires that can make this franchise red hot.
Of the South African franchises the pre-season has asked no new questions and the biggest winner in the pre-season would be the Lions who are now building the platform from which to relaunch their Super Rugby history in 2014.
It is fantastic to see the approach of the Lions and their support base has supported a process that first gives birth to a cub and then hopes for the emergence of a roaring lion.
The Stormers look the most settled in player selection and continuity of picks but they also look the most conservative and it will need a bit more adventure, of the variety produced by Western Province in last year’s Currie Cup, to take them all the way in the competition.
I have picked the Sharks as my team to win the South African conference and win the tournament. I have also picked the Kings to evolve with each weekend because of the quality of the back room staff, especially the Director of Rugby Alan Solomons.
It remains disturbing but not unexpectedly so, that there remains such hatred for a squad of players who never selected themselves, never were a part of the politics that gained the Kings entry into the tournament and never asked for anything but the opportunity to play rugby.
These players are owed support for being South African players, which is not to say they will get it from within South Africa. I am guessing they’ll probably be more embraced overseas if they show a willingness to play the game with flair because the only expectation should be in how they play and improve and not in how many wins they get in year one.
Those who knock them will conveniently forget the Lions won 15 out of 90 matches and went two seasons without a win. Those who knock them will also never accept that the Kings was never meant to be a Super Rugby story at the expense of the Lions.
The Kings are as much the victims as the short-term victors of SARU’s administration bungling in mixing agendas of race, politics, World Cup hosting campaigns, transformation and Super Rugby participation.
The Lions, the victims in 2013, will be long-term victors because in a pressure-free environment of friendly encounters they are building a player base they never had in Super Rugby.
By Mark Keohane