The 'real' Super Rugby starts here
There might be a few Kiwis and Saffers muttering about Super Rugby “really” getting started this weekend after a rather tepid start to the competition in Australia this past weekend.
I don’t mean to be harsh on the four Aussie teams involved – it’s hard to hit the ground running, and you don’t exactly want to be peaking for the first week of a long competition. Rather a case of a swing and a miss by someone at HQ who thought this showcase, elite competition should start with a match between the teams that finished 13th and 14th last season.
The Aussies have wanted for some time to kick Super Rugby off earlier, so as to get a march on the NRL rugby league competition, and this has been resisted by the other partners.
They got their way this year to accommodate their plans for the Lions tour, and that favour should have been returned by a more worthy opening night match-up, preferably between arch rivals The Waratahs and Reds, or at least between the two sides that square off on Saturday, the Brumbies and Reds.
Instead we had a rather low-key affair in Melbourne, that also featured one of the most ridiculous sin binnings ever seen, when Alby Mathewson was carded for a gentle push during a nothing-much in-goal tangle.
We got much better fare on Saturday night when the Brumbies deservedly toppled the Reds in Canberra, in a match where both teams seemed as intent on closing each other down as opening each other up.
The game was also punctuated by the referee's whistle, but this was more the fault of the players who kept leaving their feet, and referee Andrew Lees would have been better to carry out his threat of sin binnings for repeat infringements.
Still, the Brumbies showed they can build on their improved showing of last year. They have good structure, David Pocock is a massive addition, Jesse Mogg gives them real x-factor and it was heart-warming to see Clyde Rathbone back after all his troubles. One area that teams will look to target is their clearance from scrum and phase play, where Nic White really battled.
The Reds didn’t really create much and Quade Cooper never really took the line on. They’ll be better when they get Horwill and Genia back, but without them I doubt they’d be able to contend.
The Aussie conference will step up this weekend with the Reds-Waratahs grudge match, and we should see some great action this weekend when the other two conferences kick into gear.
So, to the SA and NZ scene.
The Sharks did brilliantly to make the final last year, but the strain of having to win in Brisbane, then Cape Town, then Hamilton, proved a bridge too far, and underlined the need for a week off between semi and final to make things a little more fair on the travelling team.
They get most of last year's side back, but the injuries to Keegan Daniel and Tim Whitehead, and the continuing rehab of Bismarck du Plessis will slightly offset what is a good early draw with four of their first six games at home. They should get that trio back for a tricky away schedule against the Chiefs, Highlanders, Reds and Force. They get home advantage for big games against the Crusaders and Brumbies.
I’m amazed they have yet to win this competition because they traditionally travel well, and they look to have a really powerful side that should – barring further significant injuries – make the playoffs.
It’s amazing to think that The Stormers were able to top the log last year without a single bonus point, and almost as amazing to think that they could not kick on to win. Proof, perhaps, that a week off at the start of the playoffs isn’t good for everyone.
Their defence was outstanding, and they’ve made a couple of significant signings from the Lions that should sharpen their attack and produce a few more tries. We know how good Elton Jantjies can be, and Jaco Taute will now get a real chance to show his class in a good side.
Losing Eben Etzebeth for a stretch is a blow, and it will be interesting to see how quickly Schalk Burger gets back to his wrecking-ball best, but they look early favourites at least for the SA Conference and on the front row for the overall title.
It must be disturbing for Bulls fans to see Juandre Kruger planning to go offshore so early in his career, and with Morne Steyn also due to leave, this might be the Bull's last chance for a while to secure another title.
Two guys with a bit to prove, in my opinion, are Pierre Spies and Francois Hougaard. Spies at his best is unstoppable, but last year might have started to feel the cumulative effect of several seasons of hard grind, while Hougaard has still to make that transition from match-turning sub to authoritative starter.
The pressure might be on too, to play a more rounded game, because teams know what they’re going to get, but Pretoria is still one hell of a hard place to win, and you can’t discount them.
The Cheetahs were the favourites of many a neutral fan (including yours truly) last year for their never-say-die attitude and their relentless commitment to go forward. Their win in Wellington over the Hurricanes from a mile back was quite sensational.
It will be great to see Johan Goosen back in action, along with Sarel Pretorius following a season wasted in Sydney, and they will be the No 1 target for opposition defence coaches.
But they will not be able to catch anyone off guard after last year and they’ve lost a bunch of good players, most notably the world-respected Juan Smith, and they’ll do well to improve on last year's 10th spot.
I just hope they keep playing the same kind of footy, because it’s great to watch.
I confess I have absolutely no idea of what to expect from The Kings, but note that they are widely tipped to finish last, which is where the last two “expansion” teams have finished in their first season. It’s hardly surprising because this is a very tough competition and they are a new combination taking on established forces. There will be extra pressure because their presence owes as much to politics as anything else, but good luck to them. They get a chance to win first up against the Force, in a match that could be an early tip for the wooden spoon.
Predicted conference winner: Stormers, but with the Sharks right on their tail.
The Chiefs finally broke their duck last year, and despite the mission impossible that faced the Sharks, were worthy winners.
They have lost two talismanic players though, in Sonny Bill Williams and prop Sona Taumalolo, and with Richard Kahui and Brendon Leonard MIA for the first few weeks, face a tough start.
However there is an advantage to getting the big overseas trip out of the way early, and I’d back them to be right in the hunt again because they have a hard-working pack, some brilliant backs, and arguably the best coaching staff in the whole competition.
The Crusaders are perennial favourites, and rightly so with their record, but there will be no Richie McCaw to get in everyone's way this year, and they have not won a title since 2008 when Robbie Deans jumped ship. Coach Todd Blackadder knows he has to produce, or he’s toast.
As long as Dan Carter is fit they’ll be a match for most defences, they travel well, and are hellishly hard to beat at home, but New Zealand sides in particular get very fired up to play them. They struggled to penetrate on attack last year and have brought in former All Black Aaron Mauger to the coaching staff to try and rectify that.
Normally I’d have them on the front row of the grid, and you’d be foolish to write them off, not with names like Dagg, Read, Carter and Whitelock in the mix, but I’m a little uncertain about their prospects this year.
No one is expecting much from The Blues after their woeful showing of last year and a raft of notable departures.
What they do have is a bunch of very talented young players, a head coach in John Kirwan who is an inspirational sort of fellow, even if his coaching track record is not that flash, and an assistant coach by the name of Henry, who – make no mistake – will be calling a lot of the shots, even if everyone insists “JK’s the boss.” His presence alone suggests better things.
They won’t win it, but they might just be laying the foundations for better times to come.
The Hurricanes were much improved last year and so expectations in the capital will be raised. They have some of the country's most startling young talent in the likes of the Savea brothers (if you thought Julian was good, then wait ‘til you see Ardie), Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara and Brad Shields, along with that wisest of old heads Conrad Smith.
But they have already suffered a hammer blow, with the loss of Corey Jane, and while they’ll rip some teams apart, the key will be finding a consistency that eluded them last year. They’ll be good to watch, though.
And that leaves The Highlanders. Coach Jamie Joseph has managed to lure seasoned veterans Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and the big daddy of them all Brad Thorn to the southern city, in a bid to build on the improvements of the last two years.
To counter that Adam Thomson has disappeared, and he has lost centre Tamati Ellison for the best part of the programme, which robs them of potentially one of the best midfield combos in the competition.
Much will depend on whether Joseph is prepared to rotate his troops more effectively. They have faded badly the last two years, in part because of his insistence in putting out his best available every week. They were also a bit undisciplined at the breakdown.
Sort those out, and you have a dark horse contender.
Predicted conference winner: I’ll stick my neck out and go Highlanders with the Chiefs close by, but this is a very even conference and I will not be making any bets.