MARK KEOHANE looks at the backline men who could play an important role in the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
BENJI MARSHALL (BLUES)
Marshall is the biggest league-to-union convert since Sonny Bill Williams, but there is as much doubt as there is excitement at how successful Marshall will be. He was considered the best player in either code a few years ago but his rugby league form was poor in 2013. Coach John Kirwan has selected him at flyhalf for the Blues' first pre-season match against the Hurricanes.
MILS MULIAINA (CHIEFS)
If Super Rugby is supposed to be a young man’s game, don’t bet against Muliaina being among the standout players in the 2014 tournament. The 100-Test veteran was a stalwart and former captain of the Chiefs before quitting New Zealand rugby after the 2011 World Cup. He has played in Japan for the past two years and coach Dave Rennie believes the experience of Muliaina will soften the loss of experienced captain Craig Clarke. Muliaina has been listed as a utility back and will play at outside centre, wing or fullback.
NEMANI NADOLO (CRUSADERS)
The Fiji wing was the surprise package of the Crusaders squad announcement. Nadolo has been playing for the NEC Green Rockets in Japan, but has struggled with fitness and in getting a regular start. However, coach Todd Blackadder believes the player will thrive in the Crusaders’ disciplined environment. Blackadder said Nadolo is set to be one of the most exciting players in the competition. ‘He is an absolute hulk of a man, yet he can fly down the field like you wouldn’t believe for a man that size. Comparisons have been drawn with Jonah Lomu, and we can’t wait to unleash him in this competition.’
BEN SMITH (HIGHLANDERS)
Smith was the form fullback in the 2013 Super Rugby tournament, despite playing for a Highlanders team that was poor. He was also the form wing in the Rugby Championship and was nominated as one of New Zealand’s Players of the Year. He has been named co-captain for the 2014 season and will be even more influential. The Highlanders have been great underachievers in the competition and appear to have regressed since former All Blacks coach Jamie Joseph took charge. If the Highlanders are to improve, Smith cannot afford to deliver anything less than the superhuman effort he did in 2013.
TJ PERENARA (HURRICANES)
All Black Beauden Barrett will control the back division and is expected to play mostly at flyhalf, but it’s young No 9 Perenara who must come of age in the 2014 competition. Perenara, despite his youth, is into his third Super Rugby season, and this will be the one that could make or break his All Blacks World Cup challenge. Perenara was preferred to veteran Piri Weepu as the third-choice scrumhalf in the All Blacks touring squad in November. His game is similar to All Blacks incumbent Aaron Smith, but his biggest battle could be staying fit. He has already had two serious leg injuries in the past two years, including a broken leg that kept him out of the game for six months.
Photo: Toru Yamanaka/AFP Photo