Scott Robertson’s ability to enthuse Sam Whitelock might well determine the outcome of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Asterisk or not, there’s still a title to be won here and the Crusaders remain the benchmark for Southern Hemisphere franchise sides. Having Whitelock back, at least in theory, should be a boon for Robertson and company, but then these are rather unique times.
Prior to the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup exit, you’d have put the house on Whitelock succeeding Kieran Read as national captain. He’d just claimed a hat-trick of Super titles as Crusaders skipper, extended his New Zealand Rugby (NZR) contract by four years and was clearly among the first names on the All Blacks’ teamsheet.
By tournament’s end, though, the 31-year-old veteran of 117 test matches began to show signs of wear and tear.
Never mind, he had a lucrative Japanese sabbatical to embark on, enabling him to sit out the 2020 Super season and still be ensconced as New Zealand skipper.
Sadly, Joel Everson’s drug charge, then COVID-19, put paid to the Japan Top League and now Sam Cane’s been named All Blacks captain.
Having happily turned his back on the Crusaders for this year, Whitelock’s about to embark on yet another Super Rugby season. Only not as their skipper either, with Scott Barrett having assumed that role.
Chris Boyd said a lot of interesting things as Hurricanes coach. Among them was that his team made the 2015 Super Rugby final, and were champions the following year, slightly by default.
If he was being absolutely honest, Boyd said, the Hurricanes’ success owed a bit to the comparative failure of the Crusaders.
Among the issues then-Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder had was energising some senior All Blacks. Men for whom Super Rugby had become a chore and who were treading water ahead of the international season.
Yes, old stagers such as Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter had gone by the time Robertson took the helm, but that doesn’t diminish his ability to motivate the men who remained.
We all know Robertson has plenty of quirky tactical ideas, but his greatest strengths lie in areas such as the theming of campaigns and the ability to sell established players on the notions of sacrifice and team.
He’ll have worked very hard to establish Barrett as the new leader and to differentiate 2020 from the Whitelock era and now some of that will need to be undone or adapted. Whitelock’s faced a few career disappointments in recent months too, meaning Robertson will need to excite and challenge him again.
Teams are delicate little organisms and – even with the same personnel – change from season to season. Now the Crusaders have a colossal figure rejoining the ranks in a diminished leadership capacity, which should make things interesting.
Similar can be said for the competition as a whole.
It’s a shame in some ways that this isn’t in a Mitre 10 Cup format. These are challenging financial and emotional times and you might argue that a more national competition would be welcome right now.
As it is, at least we’ll have some footy and hopefully it’s competitive too.
It’s hard to make a case for the Highlanders, but the Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Blues all appear to have reasonable title claims. I fancied the Chiefs at the start of the season, but have found it hard not to be impressed by the Blues. Add Beauden Barrett to their roster and suddenly you have a serious contender to talk about.
The Hurricanes will have their moments, but maybe look a few players short of a championship side, and then there’s those Crusaders.
Whitelock’s return ought to make them certain favourites, but we’ll have to wait and see if Robertson can keep working his magic yet again.
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