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.
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.
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.
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.