Auck­land feel the bulk of their squad have been around for long enough now to make a se­ri­ous chal­lenge for the ti­tle.

Auck­land didn’t ful­fil their po­ten­tial last year but feel they have the squad and the ex­pe­ri­ence to do so in 2014. LIAM NAPIER re­ports.

NZ Rugby World - - Contents - Coaches : Paul Feeney ( head), Xavier Rush and Nick White ( as­sis­tants)

Vi­sion State­ment As long as we win our fair share of ball we will be in with a chance to win it. That’s not be­ing ar­ro­gant. That’s just where we’d like to think we are. We think we’ve got a well bal­anced squad. We looked back on last year at the likes of Can­ter­bury and Welling­ton and felt we lacked a bit of ex­pe­ri­ence. That showed in our games at cer­tain times of the year. In gen­eral a lot of us have been to­gether, it’s our third year as a group. We’re keen to put a few points right. Head coach Paul Feeney

The Big Pict ure

By their own stan­dards Auck­land went back­wards last year. Fi­nal­ists in 2012, los­ing their last three games, in­clud­ing another all- too- fa­mil­iar semi­fi­nal de­feat to Can­ter­bury, was a limp way to end the sea­son. Ex­pec­ta­tions don’t de­vi­ate much when it comes to New Zealand’s largest province. Af­ter two years as as­sis­tant, Paul Feeney steps up to re­place Welsh- bound Wayne Pi­vac and has re­cruited for­mer All Blacks No 8 Xavier Rush as for­wards coach, along­side Nick White. Feeney will be given lit­tle time to get his feet un­der the desk. With the tal­ented ros­ter at his dis­posal, the board room will have eyes on end­ing Can­ter­bury’s six- year reign. Even with­out Malakai Fek­i­toa, Charles Pi­u­tau, Pa­trick Tuip­u­lotu and Steven Lu­atua, who are all in line for the All Blacks’ Rugby Cham­pi­onship squad, Feeney over­sees a lethal back­line. Lo­lagi Visinia, Ge­orge Moala, Ben Lam, Gareth An­scombe, Fran­cis Saili and Si­mon Hickey should all fea­ture promi­nently. The cliché rings true, though. It all starts up- front for this out­fit.

A new- look fron­trow will need to con­trol the set piece and lay a de­cent plat­form be­fore that abun­dance of flair can shine. Much like the Blues, depth at lock is a con­cern. Li­aki Moli and Jack Whet­ton, back from a stint with the Brumbies, may lack sup­port. Op­po­si­tion could fancy their chances of test­ing the for­ward pack’s de­sire for the rough stuff. The ab­sence of Luke Braid, who will have shoul­der surgery, is a ma­jor blow, but also of­fers a chance for Sean Pol­wart to push for a Su­per Rugby con­tract af­ter miss­ing out this year.

Ris­ing St ar

It’s time for Ofa Tu’un­gafasi to make his mark. The 120kg prop has the physique to cause a ma­jor im­pact, but af­ter burst­ing onto the scene he’s been forced to wait be­hind Tony Wood­cock, Char­lie Fau­muina and An­gus Ta’avao. Two years into his pro­fes­sional ca­reer, he now needs to step up and show he has the ag­gres­sion, tech­nique, men­tal ap­ti­tude and hunger to live up to the ini­tial hype. This sea­son he’s ex­pected to be given am­ple op­por­tu­nity to prove his abil­ity at both tight­head and loose­head.

Old Dog

Tom McCart­ney joins Pat Lam’s Ir­ish club Con­nacht at the end of the sea­son. The vet­eran hooker, who could reach 97 games for the province, will be a vi­tal part of the lead­er­ship group. In a back­line full of X- fac­tor, Hadleigh Parks will also be leaned on heav­ily to pro­vide valu­able or­gan­i­sa­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the mid­field. At Su­per Rugby level Parks has been ex­posed at times but here he is con­sid­ered the un­her­alded glue.

New Ar­rivals

Pau­liasi Manu ( Coun­ties Manukau) and An­gus Ta’avao ( Taranaki) are two no­table losses in the fron­trow, while Braid’s in­jury strips the squad of a third ex­pe­ri­enced for­ward. Chiefs prop Nick Bar­rett should pro­vide able cover, hav­ing trans­ferred from South­land. Af­ter surgery on both his shoul­ders last sea­son, An­scombe will be keen to pull on the blue and white hoops in his favoured po­si­tion at first fiveeighth. Out­side him Fran­cis Saili re­turns home, af­ter be­ing sent away for two years at North Har­bour to im­prove his at­ti­tude.

TIME Pres­sure is on Ofa Tu’un­gafasi to step up and de­liver at prop this year.

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