Kiwi sides are ones to beat

A quick glance at the history of the Super 14 tournament suggests the 2009 winners are likely to emerge from the land of the long white cloud.

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A quick glance at the history of the Super 14 tournament suggests the 2009 winners are likely to emerge from the land of the long white cloud. In the 13 seasons so far, New Zealand teams have been honoured 10 times and, incredibly, the Crusaders have taken seven of those titles.

It is an extraordinary record in a competition which is rated as the toughest in the world because of the high standard of rugby, the rigours of long-distance travel and an intensive, unrelenting four-month schedule. Let's examine the New Zealand sides in geographical order. The Blues were the pacesetters in this competition when they won the first two titles under Graham Henry. However, they have struggled since and they are hoping that the arrival of new coach Pat Lam, one of Henry's disciples, will herald a change in their fortunes.

They have an all-Test front five - Tony Woodcock, captain Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Ali Williams and Anthony Boric - and boast a back line brimming with pace and power. There are 11 internationals in the 28-strong squad but the big questions is over the cohesion of the inside backs. Meanwhile, the one-time semifinalists Waikato Chiefs possess a back line which will be the envy of most. Crucial to their hopes will be the return of All Black half-back Brendon Leonard who missed most of last season through injury. If he remains injury free then he could provide the spark to ignite a back line that includes Stephen Donald, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina, Soseni Anesi and Richard Kahui.

Their star-studded backs are capable of inflicting damage against anyone but whether they have enough power up front remains to be seen. With four semi-final appearances in the last six tournaments, the Wellington Hurricanes are one of the most consistent sides in the tournamant but they are desperate to make that next step under coach Colin Cooper. The loss of Jerry Collins and Chris Masoe will hit them hard and whether youngsters Willie Ripia or Dan Kirkpatrick make the grade will key.

The Canterbury Crusaders are now by coached Todd Blackadder who has the unenviable task of fielding a side minus Dan Carter, Scott Hamilton, Caleb Ralph, Greg Somerville, Reuben Thorne and Ali Williams. He still has nine All Blacks, including Richie McCaw, at his disposal but Blackadder looks to have a hard task on his hands in succeeding Robbie Deans. The remaining franchise, the Otago Highlanders, have a new captain in All Black half-back Jimmy Cowan.

He leads a side featuring a young back-line and some grizzly, hard-working forwards who will be aiming to improve on last season's 11th-place finish.