The proximity of this year's Rugby World Cup is expected both to add to and detract from the 2007 Super 14 competition which begins on Friday.
National coaches from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand will use the competition to closely monitor the form of their established and fringe players ahead of finalizing their World Cup squads.
The possibility of injuries to key players, which could heavily impinge on World Cup chances, the opportunity for newcomers to play themselves into Cup reckoning and the positional rivalries of Cup opponents will add elements of intrigue to individual matches.
But New Zealand's decision to withdraw 22 All Blacks from the first seven rounds of the competition for a World Cup "conditioning program" and the temptation of other coaches to wrap frontline internationals in cotton wool will inevitably take some interest from the series' early on.
All Blacks coach Graham Henry won the support of the New Zealand Rugby Union for his plan to keep his top players on the sidelines through half of the Super 14 as he attempts to win New Zealand's first World Cup in 20 years.
Television rights holders and advertisers have complained that the absence of New Zealand and world rugby's biggest names, among them Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, will hit the tournament's audience appeal and ratings. New Zealand has been threatened with suits for compensation if ratings show a general decline while the star players are absent.
Henry disputes that the absence of the conditioning program players will detract from the Super 14's appeal, reports AP.
"I think it's a marvelous opportunity for 22 players who haven't played before and I think there'll be a lot of new faces come up this year...new players who will go on to be top international footballers," Henry said. "I don't think it's going to devalue the competition at all."
South Africa coach Jake White has not been as fortunate as Henry in protecting his players from the risks and workload of the Super 14. He has appealed to the coaches of South Africa's five franchises to keep in mind the heavy demands on top internationals and to rest top players when possible.
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