Bulls, Kings under most pressure
Everyone is in the same boat at the start of the new Super Rugby season, but there may be some teams that are more under pressure to hit their straps at the start than others may be.
While the desire to win is a non-negotiable and is shared by all teams, the three semifinalists from last year who see their first action this weekend are all playing away from home. They won’t be happy to lose, but at least they can write it off as an away game if they lose. It’s the home teams who, not to put too fine a point on it, simply cannot afford to lose given what a negative result could mean to their campaign.
You get the sense that the Bulls, so eager to make an early point after last year’s struggles, simply have to win at Loftus against the Stormers or it could already start looking like a long road for them. They got it right last year when they scored an unexpected opening win at home against the Sharks and, as a result of that, they had the confidence to mount a strong challenge for much of the league phase of the competition.
There is no team that the Bulls hate losing to more than the Stormers. To lose to them at home in the first match would be particularly galling, and their captain Pierre Spies has already spoken this week about how this game looms as a measuring stick for where his team are as they go into what he hopes will be a big season.
Not of course that the Stormers will be going to Loftus contemplating the possibility of defeat. They have won their last two games in Pretoria and would love to make it a hat-trick. They have the team to do it and they have the confidence to do it.
The Southern Kings, making their debut in this tournament, are under a similar sort of pressure to the Bulls. Everyone expects them to finish last in the competition, and against the Western Force they will be opening at home against the side that in 2012 finished second last. So you have to ask yourself the question – if they don’t beat the Force in Port Elizabeth, what chance of them beating anyone else?
The Force have already lost one match to the Rebels, and with former captains Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock now no longer with them, plus some changes to their coaching staff, it looks like this will be a tough year for them. Not quite as tough though as it will be for the Kings if the new team don’t ride the hype of this historic home start to their first ever Super Rugby campaign with a win.
Highlanders v Chiefs, Dunedin 8:35am
One high profile off-season signing Brad Thorn is still out and won’t be returning until next week, but Ma’a Nonu will line up in the Highlanders midfield in their clash against the 2012 champions. Also playing for the hosts is another recruit from the Blues, prop Tony Woodcock. By contrast, apart from the much spoken of loss of midfield playmaker Sonny Bill Williams, the Chiefs are missing several players to injury, including Brendan Leonard, Robbie Robinson, Andrew Horrell and Richard Kahui. Tim Nanai-Williams has been entrusted with the task of fitting into Williams’s No 12 jersey, while there are three complete newcomers to Super Rugby. So it won’t be a complete train smash for the Chiefs if they lose, for they should be expected to.
Prediction: Highlanders to win.
Rebels v Brumbies, Melbourne 10:40am
Flush from their opening win over the Western Force, the Rebels will be in a confident mood as they prepare to host the Brumbies. However, captain Gareth Delve wasn’t entirely satisfied with the narrow victory and wants an improvement against a Brumbies team that was undeniably the form team of last week’s abbreviated all-Australian start to the competition. Jake White’s men look hungry and well organised and although the Rebels seldom lose home derbies by much, the team from Canberra should be favoured for the victory.
Prediction: Brumbies to win.
Vodacom Bulls v DHL Stormers, Pretoria 7:10pm
So who really thinks they know what is going to happen in this appetising opener to the South African Super Rugby season? Anyone who puts up their hand is only guessing, or is guilty of wishful thinking, for the reality is that there just hasn’t been enough rugby yet to properly assess the form of either side. What was apparent in the warm-up phase though was how organised and hungry the Bulls looked, and I just get the feeling this might be an even bigger game for them than it is for the Stormers. Plus the Bulls are more settled at halfback. It’s why my gut – note my gut, not my brain – says the Cape team, who will miss Eben Etzebeth more in this match than in some of the others, won’t get their hat-trick of successive Super Rugby wins at Loftus.
Prediction: Bulls to win.
Hurricanes v Blues, Wellington 8:35am
New coach John Kirwan is drawing on what worked for the Blues in the early years of Super Rugby, when they dominated what was then the Super 12. However, it doesn’t appear he is talking quick fixes as he says he wants to build a legacy in five years. There are four newcomers to Super Rugby in the Blues starting team for this match who will be hoping this is the start of a long journey for them. Indeed, they’re in a similar situation to what the Hurricanes faced last season, and the Hurricanes ended up being a revelation. So much so in fact that even with a few players out with injury, the familiar look to the Hurricanes team for this match suggests they could sneak a home win.
Prediction: Hurricanes to win.
Reds v Waratahs, Brisbane 10:40am
The Waratahs were the nearly men of Super Rugby before the Stormers were, with the Sydney outfit ending several tournaments near the top of the log without being able to make the needed impression in the knockouts. So will this be the year they bridge the divide and go through the barrier? Well, they have a new coach in Michael Cheika and a new captain in Dave Dennis, and they also have a smattering of new players. On paper they don’t look bad. But given the long rivalry between the two state teams, there is no tougher place for the Waratahs to start than in Brisbane against the Reds. The 2011 champions were disappointing last week but at least they’ve had a game to get back into it, whereas the Waratahs were on bye in the first round. Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper has praised what he calls the Waratahs’ flamboyant new style, but then he is a boxer and therefore should know a thing or two about getting an opponent to do exactly what you want him to do. The Reds are still missing James Horwill but will still be hard to beat at home.
Prediction: Reds to win.
Toyota Cheetahs v The Sharks, Bloemfontein 5:05pm
The Sharks have hardly played any tough rugby in the build-up whereas the Cheetahs have been the most active South African team in the pre-season, so on that basis you have to give the hosts a chance of winning. That becomes even more of a prospect when you factor in the return of golden boy Johan Goosen, who makes such a difference to the Cheetahs when he is present. However, Sharks coach John Plumtree has spoken a lot in the early part of the year about the need to make up for previous failures by hitting the season running. The Cheetahs are still without Heinrich Brussow and of course Juan Smith has retired so the Sharks’ experienced pack should give them enough of an edge to enable them to grind out a solid first victory.
Prediction: Sharks to win.
Southern Kings v Western Force, Port Elizabeth 7:10pm
Rugby history is littered with instances when underdogs returning to a competition or being included for the first time dig deep and pull off unexpected wins, and the Kings can console themselves with the thought that it isn’t as if they’re playing a champion combination in this first game. They are playing the Western Force, who rightly are expecting a hostile reception from what should be a large Port Elizabeth crowd. How they handle it will dictate how vulnerable they are to a Kings team that should take a while to adjust to the pace of Super Rugby. Forget about the result, it’s just going to be a treat watching a new South African team in the competition and seeing exciting young players we haven’t seen before, such as 18-year-old wing Sergeal Petersen. On a personal note, it will also be great to see Luke Watson, now that he has matured and is adopting a more diplomatic approach to life, back in the public eye again. There are few more natural born leaders than Watson.
Prediction: Western Force to win.