By Neale Harvey
Glenn Delaney insists Crusaders will still be the team to beat when Super Rugby returns on Friday.
However, the Highlanders’ defence coach reckons the demands of the All Blacks’ management could leave the defending champions vulnerable in a World Cup year.
Crusaders kick-off their title defence at resurgent Auckland Blues, who welcome double-World Cup winner Ma’a Nonu back among their ranks after his stint at Toulon.
Delaney told The Rugby Paper: “Who can beat the Crusaders? It’s a challenge all the teams are trying to rise to and, from our perspective at the Highlanders, we were the last team to beat them in the competition last season so we know they’re not infallible.
“Their squad is deep but they’ll probably have to use it a bit more this season because guys like Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue will be limited in the number of minutes they play to be ready for the All Blacks.
“That’s going to be more of a challenge for them because they’ve got more All Blacks than anyone else, so we want to get off to a fast start.”
While the Highlanders lost fly-half Lima Sopoaga to Wasps, Delaney said: “Bryn Gatland’s come down from Auckland to join us and Marty Banks has returned from Japan, so with Josh Ioane, who was in our 23 all last season, we’re very well covered there.
“We knew ‘Sops’ was leaving so it’s been well planned and those guys will fight it out, while we’re happy with the rest of our squad. We were disappointed to lose in the play-offs at the Waratahs last season and hope to go further.”
As for Auckland’s chances, Delaney says: “They’re making good noises and the Mitre 10 Cup win last year has given them a tremendous boost. Leon MacDonald’s changed things up as their new head coach and they’ve got Graham Henry on board as well.
“They’ve ignited a fire up there and have good players, so it just depends how they gel.”
Delaney added: “I’d also expect the Hurricanes to be very strong again after their centre, Ngani Laumape re-signed. He gives them huge go-forward and they offer an attacking threat, while the Chiefs also grew as a team at the end of last season.”
In Australia, meanwhile, Queensland Reds are plotting a comeback after five years in the doldrums. Since winning Super Rugby in 2011 and making the play-offs for two years after that, the Brisbane-based side fell off a cliff and have since finished no higher than 13th.
Attack coach Jim McKay, one of the architects of their 2011 triumph, is back at the club alongside head coach Brad Thorn. McKay said: “It’s a classic rebuild here. A lot of experience has left the joint but in Samu Kerevi we have a fantastic skipper and we’ve got a really determined, young group of players who may lack experience but are going to go for it.
“On the wings we’ve got some firepower in Sefa Naivalu and Jordan Petaia, who is one to keep an eye on, while we’ve got a really good back row with Angus Scott-Young and Liam Wright.”
While a Waratahs side featuring Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley are expected to lead the Aussie charge, a fascinating subplot elsewhere sees the return of mercurial No.10 Quade Cooper to Super Rugby with Melbourne Rebels.
McKay added: “Quade will partner Will Genia again after previously playing together for the Reds. It will be interesting to see if he makes the Wallabies.”
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