Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: This season promises more

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Benji Marshall of the Blues takes part in fitness testing during an Auckland Blues Super Rugby pre-season training session. Photo / Getty Images.
Benji Marshall of the Blues takes part in fitness testing during an Auckland Blues Super Rugby pre-season training session. Photo / Getty Images.

The summer heat is starting to feel overwhelming, cricket is nestling into the nation's bosom and the politicians are all talking a big game - must be time for the rugby season to begin.

Let's not have any of that tosh about it being too soon: about there being too much rugby. Like there has ever been a right-minded bloke who has rejected watching a game of code on the basis the sun is shining and the beer is cold.

The rugby season is a big old show - plenty to fit in, no time to waste and most important, not a dull moment to be had.

Seriously, who wanted last year to end? We saw the All Blacks post the first perfect season of the professional era: we witnessed, probably, the greatest test ever played; a successful Chiefs defence of their Super Rugby title; two World Cup wins in the Sevens plus a World Series for the men and more compelling drama than anyone could wish for.

The good news..? This season promises as much. Maybe even more. It will start in Christchurch on February 21 when the Crusaders take on the Chiefs - no mucking about then, straight into it with the two sides who will both look like potential champions for most of the competition.

No one will surely be daft enough to doubt the Chiefs again? There was all that talk this time last year that they would miss Sonny Bill Williams. Hardly. They proved once again that the cult of the team is more powerful than the cult of the individual and won another title on the back of graft, organisation, aggressive defence and evolving attack.

The beauty of that method is its sustainability. How do you shut the Chiefs down? They are not into this smoke and mirrors business favoured by some: the forwards have little pretension to be anything other than forwards and the backs appear to care not for the number on their backs. They pass, they run they find space - they play with common sense and awareness.

They will miss the sage and earthy leadership of Craig Clarke, but in his absence, watch Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Sam Cane lead by stunning example. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden are the pre-requisite world class inside pairing and if there is anything that best illustrates the culture of the Chiefs, it is the way the likes of Andrew Horrell, Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki and Gareth Anscombe will fit in wherever they are asked.

The new flavour for them this year may well come from the presence of Mils Muliaina, Robbie Fruean and Tom Marshall. Frankly, that's just genius work by coach Dave Rennie to pick up those three and it wouldn't be a surprise, well it would be a bit, if they were the preferred back three for the Chiefs come the playoffs.

Will they be the champions again? Probably. The Blues will fancy not of course and no doubt, for periods this year, they will look like a genuine contender.

For how long, depends entirely on coach John Kirwan's ability to meld the whole into the sum of its component parts. There is talent enough: Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Luke Braid, Jerome Kaino, Piri Weepu, Ma'a Nonu, Francis Saili, Frank Halai and Charles Piutau reads like a champion team. And then there is Benji - do we need to use his surname? - a freakish type with innate ball skills who, if nothing else, illustrates the extent of Kirwan's vision for the Blues.

The certainties then are: the Blues will play expansive pass and run rugby, which, if they do accurately and relentlessly, will be unstoppable. The uncertainties are: Benji; the second row and their general depth.

For the record, the Blues may well finish in the New Zealand Conference and still make the playoffs alongside the Crusaders and Chiefs - (thanks to the Hurricanes and Highlanders for making up the numbers).

The men from Christchurch are well and truly over this close but no cigar routine and with Richie McCaw and Kieran Read in from the start, they will be fearsome. But gut feel - the Chiefs are a better all-round side and will defend their title.

Parallels are easy to draw between the Chiefs and the All Blacks: both are out in front, both are under pressure to advance and stay ahead of the chasing pack. Rugby, strategically at least, evolves at a faster rate than most sports: stand still and go backwards is the All Black take and with World Cup 2015 now visible on the horizon, 2014 will be a year of massive intrigue.

Sitting on 14 consecutive victories, can the All Blacks go past the first-class record of 17? And if they do - how much of a burden will their unbeaten streak become? There are so many more questions: such as, how will they accommodate Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Charles Piutau. Will Beauden Barrett make an irresistible case to finally be given the No 10 shirt he does not yet possess? What about Daniel Carter - will he recover the way he's supposed to?

The bigger picture carries as many unknowns. Three tests against England to start sounds as tough as it can get but it's probable the Poms will only have one bullet in the gun.

Dunedin in the second test might be their moment to get close but in truth, the 'real' test against England will be the last one - at Twickenham in early November. Playing at the venue that will host the World Cup final almost exactly a year on - try not finding significance or deeper meaning in that.

In a sense, the test season proper will begin in August against an Australian side that may soon start to show obvious signs of improvement. That chap Israel Folau can play and he may lift his nation to new heights. As for the Boks...well, if they can hold their nerve and continue to build their ball in hand game...good luck everyone else.

The return to Ellis Park will be enormous and there is still the prospect of the All Blacks making an historic visit to Chicago. Big year...huge year more like.

It's impossible for results and performances this year to not feel more important: a year out from the World Cup and everyone analyses and wonders what it all means, probably more than they should.

For the All Blacks it's relatively simple: what they want to do this year is add yet more components to their game. They want to improve another 10-15 per cent. Impossible? Hardly. They were way off in their scrummaging for much of last year. Some of their defensive work was sloppy, they got cleaned out too easily by the Northern Hemisphere sides at the breakdown and for all their creativity and brilliance, they still left a few tries out on the field.

If they make the improvements they are after, they should swing round the last bend in front of the chasing pack - well-placed to charge down the home straight to the World Cup. That guarantees nothing, but given the choice of being out in front or chasing someone else a year out from the World Cup, the All Blacks would take the former.

Just as the World Cup is on the horizon in the fifteens game, the Olympics are getting nearer for the Sevens teams. The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will give both the mens and womens teams a dry run so to speak if not necessarily - for the men at least - a true barometer of where they sit in the world pecking order.

The value of these tournaments is the legacy they carry within the player networks: those involved come home, rave about their experience and plant the seed in the heads of a few major XV-a-side stars that they might fancy giving it a go next time.

Glasgow will be crucial in that regard as there has been rumblings from both Benji and Sonny Bill Williams about signing up for the Olympics. Liam Messam could be tempted too and who knows, the likes of Ben Smith, Cory Jane and Victor Vito could also be persuaded in time.

The other point of interest in the abbreviated game will be assessing whether there really are any dark horse contenders charging up on the rails. Can the likes of the USA, Canada, Kenya, Argentina and Spain start winning a few tournaments?

And talking of tournaments, perhaps the biggest highlight of the year may come in June when New Zealand - more accurately Auckland - hosts the hugely fascinating Under-20 World Cup.

Excuse the cliché, but this really is where the stars of tomorrow can be found. Actually, it is probably where a few stars of the 2015 World Cup will be found.

A silly number - in excess of 100 - players who have appeared at the Junior World Cup since 2008, have gone on to win full caps. New Zealand haven't won or indeed threatened to win since 2011 - the year their side contained Ben Tameifuna, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Steven Luatua, Brad Shields, Sam Cane, Luke Whitelock, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Francis Saili and Charles Piutau.

Rugby season is with us...bring it on.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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