Getting the balance in Super 14

By David Leggat

As the inaugural Air New Zealand Cup works its way towards the knockout phase, six coaches are working out the best way to compensate for the absence of All Blacks under the World Cup reconditioning camp set down for the first few weeks of 2007.

The 22 are spread among the five Super 14 franchises but some coaches are worse hit than others.

Crusader Robbie Deans loses seven while Highlanders boss Greg Cooper will have to do without only two - but they happen to be front rowers, Carl Hayman and Anton Oliver.

And there's part of the rub. Some coaches will lose specialists, others utilities and some are hardest hit in one specific area.

Take Colin Cooper at the Hurricanes. Five of his six absentees are forwards, including his entire first choice loose forward trio of Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe and Rodney So'oialo.

Ian Foster at the Chiefs loses three backs while the Crusaders' pullouts are spread through a starting XV.

"It'll vary from squad to squad," Nucifora said. "The biggest thing when you're looking at the whole issue of being able to protect 24 players is the balance of the squad. That's the key."

Franchises losing players with strong utility value might have a different outlook, he said. "For us, it's probably a bit more cut and dried because we've got three tight forwards who play fairly specific positions and a winger, so it's more a case of naming replacements corresponding with those positions."

The New Zealand Rugby Union has confirmed the 22 replacement players will stay on full contracts until the end of the Super 14.

So squads will, from round eight, carry their initial selection of 28, plus their returning All Blacks, plus wider training group members. In the Blues case, that may add up to about 39 players.

Just as the All Blacks missing a large chunk of the Air NZ Cup has offered chances to promising players earlier than they might have expected, so it will happen with the Super 14.

One of the intriguing aspects of the squad announcement, around October 26, will be whether franchises have dug into the draft for experienced heads to fill vacancies or trusted their younger talent coming through.

In the case of the Crusaders, Deans and his new assistant, former All Black hooker Mark Hammett, seem certain to want to incorporate fast-rising loose forwards Hayden Hopgood and Kieran Read to cover All Black captain Richie McCaw and Reuben Thorne in their operation next year.

First five-eighths Stephen Brett had one appearance this year and, in the absence of Daniel Carter and Aaron Mauger, this year's New Zealand Colts No 10 is perfectly placed to further his education.

At the Chiefs, Foster and his new No 2, Waikato coach Warren Gatland, may consider Byron Kelleher and Sitiveni Sivivatu's absence as a chance to discover more about halfback Brendon Leonard and Counties Manukau's Lelia Masaga, who had three chances off the bench this year.

Cooper at the Hurricanes may have the biggest headache. Picking two from the reliable Paul Tito, Bernie Upton and Luke Andrews to cover Jason Eaton's absence at lock is one thing; finding good-quality loose forwards for all three roles is another.

And as for the Blues, Nucifora's options would include Derren Witcombe and Tim Dow to cover Mealamu; Greg Rawlinson, Kurtis Haiu, Brad Mika and perhaps Troy Flavell as locking options; Doug Howlett, Vili Waqaseduadua, Rudi Wulf and young flyer David Smith as wing alternatives, and Saimone Taumoepeau to shoulder the load in loosehead prop Woodcock's absence.

The third Super 14 assistant appointment yesterday was Glenn Moore for the Highlanders.

Missing in action

Franchise holes to fill until the All Blacks return in round eight in late March:

Crusaders 7: Fullback (Leon MacDonald), second five-eighths (Aaron Mauger), first five-eighths (Dan Carter), openside flanker (Richie McCaw), blindside flanker/lock (Reuben Thorne), lock (Chris Jack), prop (Greg Somerville).

Hurricanes 6: Halfback (Piri Weepu), loose forwards (Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe, Jerry Collins), lock (Jason Eaton), hooker (Andrew Hore).

Blues 4: Wing (Joe Rokocoko), lock (Ali Williams), prop (Tony Woodcock), hooker (Keven Mealamu).

Chiefs 3: Wing (Sitiveni Sivivatu) fullback/centre (Mils Muliaina), halfback (Byron Kelleher).

Highlanders 2: Prop (Carl Hayman), hooker (Anton Oliver).

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