Rugby-Stability the watchword for New Zealand challengers

WELLINGTON Thu Feb 14, 2013 9:00am GMT

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WELLINGTON Feb 14 (Reuters) - Stability has been embraced by four of New Zealand's five Super Rugby coaches ahead of the 2013 season as they seek to wrest the title away from Dave Rennie's Waikato Chiefs.

Only new Auckland Blues coach John Kirwan made wholesale changes with 16 new players included in his 32-man squad as he seeks to reinvigorate a moribund franchise.

The All Blacks-laden Blues were tipped as winners of the competition last year but injuries to key players and big name signings Ma'a Nonu and Piri Weepu failing to spark caused the team to self destruct.

The influx of fringe players towards the end of last season, brought about by the injury toll and former coach Pat Lam having nothing to lose, lay out a path to the future that Kirwan has embraced.

Despite the new faces in the playing roster, arguably the best addition to improving the team's fortunes has been that of Kirwan and his fellow coaches.

Kirwan wasted little time in asking former All Blacks coach Graham Henry to come on board as a technical adviser. Both are Auckland rugby icons, with the team's three Super Rugby titles all coming while Henry was involved.

IT AIN'T BROKE

In contrast to Kirwan's sweeping changes, Rennie, who guided the Chiefs to their first Super Rugby title with a 37-6 victory over the Sharks in the 2012 final, has adopted an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mantra.

The Chiefs finally clicked last year under their rookie coach as their unsung forwards provided the grunt and a platform for flyhalf Aaron Cruden to run the game.

Despite having lost Sonny Bill Williams from his backline, Rennie has tweaked rather than overhauled his squad and added players that give him solidity rather than out and out game-breaking ability.

Mark Hammett at the Wellington Hurricanes has also made few changes with 24 players returning from his 2012 squad.

The arrival of All Blacks prop Ben Franks to join a front row of Dane Coles and the promising Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen is a boost, while teenage loose forward Ardie Savea is already being compared to All Blacks great Michael Jones.

The loss of winger Cory Jane to a knee injury will test their depth in the outside backs, though the 30-year-old has said his last two Super Rugby seasons were hardly of the standard he expected of himself.

TITLE PRESSURE

Canterbury Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has also tweaked his squad, though pressure is mounting on the former All Blacks captain to win the team's first title since 2008.

A post-season review saw a restructuring of roles in the coaching set up and the departure of former assistant Daryl Gibson, who felt his post had been downgraded. Blackadder has promised a more attacking focus this year.

While All Blacks captain Richie McCaw will miss the majority of the season as he takes a six-month sabbatical, Matt Todd has proved a more than competent replacement in the back row.

Number eight Kieran Read will take over the captaincy, giving him the chance to further cement his leadership credentials as McCaw's successor in the national side.

The Crusaders will also be without Zac Guildford for the early part of the season at least after the All Blacks winger voluntarily stood down to battle his problems with alcohol.

Otago Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph is also under title pressure after two solid seasons that were characterised by good starts followed by late-season fades.

Some top-class recuriting has improved the depth of the squad with World Cup winners Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Brad Thorn all joining this year after Hosea Gear ventured south in 2012. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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