05 August 2008

How the Air New Zealand Cup sides shape up

Air New Zealand Cup premiership teams at a glance (* denotes new head coach):


NPC Champions: 1982; 84-85; 87-90; 93-96; 99; 2002-03; 05; 07

2007: Champions and Ranfurly Shield holders

Coach: Pat Lam - mid-season replacement to be named

Prospects: Unbeatable last season, it doesn't appear so easy this year. An entire starting line-up has either relocated or retired, a gigantic 619 games worth of provincial experience - and nine All Blacks. Inexperienced first five-eighths Lachie Munro will guide an inexperienced forward pack - Daniel Braid is the solitary All Black - around the park. Coach Pat Lam departs after round five to focus on the Blues, adding a possible impediment to continuity. Will be keen to utilise their three current All Blacks - Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino and John Afoa - if and when available.


NPC Champions: 1976

2007: 13th

Coach: Kevin Schuler

Prospects: Things are grim off the field, and will struggle to gain break-even on it. The union is battling financially, so much so that head office staff face redundancy after recording a $915,000 loss. Front row bookends Ben Castle and Simms Davison have headed to France, another big loss. Arden David and Joe Savage, bit part players with Wellington B and North Harbour respectively fill those experienced voids. Pivot Murray Williams has drifted to Japan though Highlanders draft player Mike Delaney is an adequate replacement to run a backline bolstered by the acquisition of sevens stars Zar Lawrence and Nigel Hunt.


NPC Champions: 1977; 83; 97; 2001; 04.

2007: Beaten semifinalists

Coach: Rob Penney

Prospects: For all the Crusaders' Super 14 dominance, the same success has rarely been replicated by Canterbury in the provincial competition. During the Deans dynasty, Canterbury won the domestic title just twice - coach Rob Penney has his third attempt this year with a squad that appears as well-equipped as any. Despite missing a bevvy of internationals the roster is still laden with experience and in new captain Kieran Read and Stephen Brett they have a couple of All Blacks-in-waiting.

Read has Japan-bound seasoned pro Mose Tuiali'i in a loose trio which sees Hayden Hopgood and George Whitelock lined up as Richie McCaw's understudy.


NPC Champions: 1979.

2007: 14th

Coach: Greg Aldous *

Prospects: If there truly is no place like home, then Counties-Manukau should anticipate emerging from the cellar with a new coach, new signings and the security of a solid financial footing. Repositioned back at Pukekohe - for the daytime kick-offs at least - one of the thriftiest unions may be about the reap some rewards. The Steelers have brought in some key personnel. Pivot Tasesa Lavea, front rower Lance Po-ching and national sevens captain DJ Forbes have arrived from Auckland, while former Blues and Highlanders midfielder Romi Ropati is back after an extended OE in Japan, France and Italy. Lelia Masaga is a trump card while fellow wing Frank Halai has been mentioned as the next Jonah Lomu.


NPC, second division winners: 1979; 88-90; 2001-03; 05.

2007: Beaten semifinalists

Coach: Peter Russell

Prospects: Will the fairytale continue? Unscripted semifinalists last year, Hawke's Bay have been the real winners since the provincial rugby competition was revamped, freeing them from second division domination. Conquerors of Wellington and Waikato (twice) last year, the Magpies have a similar squad led by the evergreen Danny Lee. Crucially, a select few have had a season of Super rugby under their belts: speedster Zac Guildford, imposing prop Clint Newland, New Zealand Maori hooker Hikawera Elliott and pack workhorse Michael Johnson.


NPC champions: 1980.

2007: 12th

Coach: Dave Rennie

Prospects: Another province fearful for the future given the competition format is ripe for review, Manawatu can at least point to gradual improvement after they understandably propped up the table in 2006. The Turbos finished 12th last year, the product of a strong work ethic - openside flanker Josh Bradknock personified the collective effort from an undersized pack. Hayden Triggs was recognised with a second Super 14 contract while Johnny Leota joined Highlanders. Argentine fullback Francisco Bosch will add flair from the rear for a third season.


NPC: second division winners: 1987.

2007: 9th

Coach: Wayne Pivac

Prospects: After missing the playoffs and surrendering the Ranfurly Shield with barely a whimper, North Harbour have an easy act to follow this season. An unprecedented representation in the All Blacks has a downside as the loss, for however long, of Rudi Wulf, Anthony Tuitavake, Anthony Boric will be keenly felt, as will No 8 Nick Williams' season-ending shoulder surgery. Jimmy Gopperth, on loan from Wellington, and Chris Smylie, back home from Otago, should at least add some stability behind a scrum sure to be tutored wisely by academy coach Craig Dowd.


NPC: Second division winners: 1977, 1997.

2007: 10th

Coach: Marc Anscombe

Prospects: Northland will be grateful veterans David Holwell and Justin Collins are available to impart their wisdom to a squad featuring a dozen new faces. The northerly drift has also bit in Whangarei with nuggety halfback Corey Tamou now in France while one-season Crusader No 8 Jake Paringatai is plying his trade in Japan. Daniel Bowden has headed in the opposite direction - to Dunedin, further emphasising Holwell's importance on the paddock. Fetu'u Vainikolo, who made the return journey after an impressive Super 14 debut with the Highlanders, will be expected to provide a fair share of the five-pointers.


NPC Champions: 1991; 98.

2007: Beaten quarterfinalists

Coach: Steve Martin

Prospects: By Otago standards the player exodus has been relatively languid for a change. The damage was done last year, to the Highlanders at least, but Steve Martin's side has a settled look to it. Inside backs Callum Bruce and Charlie Hore have departed, while wing Matt Saunders in now a Southlander but promising Northlander Daniel Bowden has struck around since the Super 14 to slot in at first five-eighths. Waikato loose forward Steven Setephano will be anticipating more minutes on the field since his move from flanker-clogged Waikato while wing Lucky Mulipola has been signed from a fracturing Tasman.


NPC: second division winners, 1989; 94; 96.

2007: Beaten quarterfinalists

Coach: David Henderson/Simon Culhane

Prospects: At long last the Stags might have a backline to complement another typically rugged pack. Guilty of being a tad three dimensional in the past - scoring options revolved around a Paul Miller barge, Jimmy Cowan snipe or Blair Stewart penalty. With Miller long gone and Cowan on All Blacks duty, Southland have assembled an encouraging back division with Stewart and James Wilson at pivot and fullback, New Zealand Maori Jason Kawau in midfield while Matt Saunders has winged in from Dunedin. Prop Chris King has also transferred from Otago to occupy Clarke Dermody's tighthead spot. With Cowan expected to be rarely sighted, halfback duties fall to his brother Scott and Dane Shelford, son of late Kiwis prop Adrian. Hoani MacDonald, in his farewell season before heading to Wales, will be expected to secure a steady stream on lineout ball.


NPC: second division winners, 1976; 82-85; 92; 95.

2007: Beaten quarterfinalists

Coach: Adrian Kennedy *

Prospects: One of five new coaches in the competition, Kennedy has a wide-ranging CV having spent time in South Africa and English club Saracens. He takes over from provincial legend Kieran Crowley and inherits the standard confrontational forward pack, albeit one with a more expressive component. Taranaki's loose forward stocks have been replenished by the arrival of Wellingtonian Alex Tulou and another potentially damaging offloader Taisina Tuifua. A strong club season should also see Nemia Soqueta, brother of the rangy Tomasi, feature. Kennedy has lured Saracens lock Tom Ryder south though the Hurricanes second row duo of Craig Clarke and Jason Eaton is well-established. The competition is key for Eaton who has clearly dropped down the All Blacks' pecking order. Behind the pack, former Waikato utility Willie Ripia looms as an astute - and necessary - buy.


New team in 2006 from the amalgamation of Marlborough and Nelson Bays.

2007: 11th

Coach: Todd Blackadder *

Prospects: At risk of becoming the new Central Vikings, Tasman represents rugby's equivalent of an arranged marriage beset with irreconcilable differences. The union's decision to sell off Blenheim's Lansdowne Park to help clear debts of $4 million has prompted widespread anger in Marlborough; partner Nelson Bays are considering splitting and joining Buller. Propped up by the Canterbury Rugby Union, their benefactor has recalled last year's captain and hooker Ti'i Paulo to Christchurch while prop Ben May has signed with Waikato from next season - an indication of where the player's feel the union may be going. Todd Blackadder, named as Robbie Deans' successor at the Crusaders, could hardly start his New Zealand coaching career in a more challenging environment.


Champions: 1992, 2006.

2007: Beaten quarterfinalists

Coach: Tony Hanks *

Prospects: A year older, a year wiser - that could be the mantra of the Waikato squad under Warren Gatland's promoted assistant Tony Hanks. With injuries causing havoc Gatland had no choice but to call on the likes of midfielders Roimata Hansell-Pune and Jackson Willison; Hanks will be hoping the relative rookies are better for the experience. Hard hit by a significant representation in the All Blacks - including first timers Stephen Donald and Richard Kahui - Waikato conscripted Otago discard Callum Bruce and Kevin O'Neill in the off-season. Tom Willis, Marty Holah and Steven Bates are overseas and Jono Gibbes has retired but Liam Messam is still on hand, ever hopeful of a place on the All Blacks' end of year tour.


NPC Champions: 1978; 81; 86; 2000.

2007: Runners-up

Coach: Jamie Joseph *

Prospects: Can the abrasive former All Blacks hardman take Wellington to the top? Jamie Joseph takes over the top job from Aussie McLean with the intention of taking Wellington a step further after they have been the losing finalists in each of the Air New Zealand Cup finals. Youth was a focal point when the initial 27-man squad was named. The polarising Jimmy Gopperth has been jettisoned to North Harbour, leaving under-20s World Cup winner Daniel Kirkpatrick under pressure as the first choice pivot though Piri Weepu might deputise from time to time. Wing is a concern with Hosea Gear the only specialist named - thanks to Ma'a Nonu's All Blacks' rebirth and Shannon Paku's departure. Joseph is hoping to gain dispensation to field 18-year-old Buxton Popoali'i. Fortunately the pack still has a hard edge to it, with or without the All Blacks. Jacob Ellison, Ross Filipo, Jeremy Thrush and Thomas Waldrom should ensure Wellington are rarely outmuscled.

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