I must say that I didn't pick the bolters for the All Blacks End of Year tour squad, but I am excited by them. I find both Ben Smith and Mike Delaney are very consistent players unlike several others in the running. Both of these guys can kick well and are strong under the high ball. I thought the ship had saled on Delaney's career, but he is a first time All Black at 27.
The other new caps Zac Guildford and Tamati Ellison are more predictable. I think Tamati Ellison has the ability to be All Black centre and is such an exciting runner anywhere in the backline.
I do feel for Hosea Gear, Aaron Cruden, Isaac Ross and Aled De Malmanche. They get the opportunity to impress in the Air New Zealand Cup (what's left of it).
Round 14 will be interesting without the All Blacks. Wellington, Southland, Hawkes Bay, Waikato and Auckland are battling for three places. Victory is required by all of these teams if they are to have a sniff. The big thing for Southland is that they must win the Ranfurly Shield if they are to make the semi finals (unless Hawkes Bay lose to Northland).
This is one of the biggest games in Southland history!
The rumour mill is circulating around transfers and the draft for the Super 14. No one knows where Steve Brett is going as there is a shortage of quality first fives. Robbie Fruean is off to the Crusaders with Zac Guildford. It is believed that Michael Hobbs and Israel Dagg are going to the Highlanders. It will be interesting to see how many guys end up staying for the Air New Zealand Cup.
With four teams getting relegated there will be plenty of teams getting their cheque books out to sign the sprinkling of top players from Northland, Tasman, Manawatu and Counties. Southland are on the verge of signing a current Super 14 player. There is a chance it will be exciting winger James Patterson who is carving up for the Crusaders and could do the same for the Highlanders. The more sensible option is that it is Manawatu's Johnny Leota.
The players from the four teams worth getting are.
Leila Masaga and Shennin Stowers (Counties) - The wingers for Counties are dynamic and will surely be top of the pile for leaving Counties for somewhere else.
Aaron Cruden, Johnny Leota, Kurt Baker, Andre Taylor (Manawatu) - Manawatu have some genuine quality running backs who are great sevens players, but potentially too small for the next level. These young guys are all potential targets. Brent Thompson their Number Eight has been so powerful for Manawatu this season.
Kade Poki, Kahn Fotuali'i, Andrew Goodman, Alfeke Pelenise, Quentin MacDonald, Jonathon Poff, Mark Bright, Ben Franks and Joe Wheeler (Tasman) - Tasman will finish mid table and actually have some really good players who can surely play at a higher level. Tasman have a solid forward pack and some great backs lead by Andrew Goodman.
Northland - Jared Payne, Rene Ranger and Joel McKenty - The Northland outside backs can match anyone on their day. If they were on the end of the Southland backline, they would be dangerous.
It is funny though how the players who do best when they come to Southland are the battlers. The back three generally aren't the flashy Pacific Islanders, but more the solid and nonsense guys who lack flair and pace but are consistent.
If rumours are correct then the Highlanders starting lineup could be something like this.
13 Mather/Leota (they really need a star here, it is a pity Fruean is taken)