Let's get it started
It has been a tragic few weeks for rugby with the passing of Joost van der Westhuizen, and in the past week former All Black Sione Lauaki, and now South African born Wallaby Dan Vickerman.
I first saw Vickerman as a strapping 20 year old in a Sanzar under-21 tournament in Auckland, where he looked unquestionably destined for big things. He became a cornerstone of the Brumbies, then Waratahs and Wallaby packs, as a technically excellent and relentlessly physical lock of the highest calibre. His career was blighted by injury and like many players of his ilk you fully realised how good he was, when he wasn’t there.
He was a pleasant fellow to talk to, well-mannered and articulate. His death at such a young age is tragic, and a stark reminder of how difficult some can find it to transition into life after a successful professional sports career.
So, on to part two of my preview of this year's Super Rugby competition.
Rugby is going through a tough time in the Lucky Country, slipping in popularity, battling for money, and desperate for some success in one of the most intense sports markets in the world.
The Waratahs and Brumbies have been their Super Rugby standard bearers in recent years, but there are signs the Reds might add some much-needed strength to what hasn’t always been a uniformly powerful group.
Sanzar will this week meet to start shaping the future of the competition, and a poor performance by either the Rebels or Force could well mean one of them facing the chop.
The Reds: have made significant moves to try and restore their fortunes, bringing in veterans George Smith and Stephen Moore, along with Quade Cooper and the rugged Scott Higginbotham, although the Higginbotham picture is clouded by an upcoming court appearance for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
They’ve also lost some significant stock, notably outstanding flanker Liam Gill, and Greg Holmes, the latter regarded widely as Australia's best scrummaging prop, while Japan test fullback Ayumu Goromaru has gone after proving an expensive bust last year.
With Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas in the second row they have a solid looking pack to go with some explosive backs, but much will depend on the playmaking of Cooper. If he finds good form, then they’ll score way more than last year's paltry 33 tries.
They do have a tricky round-the-world assignment in March, facing the Lions and Jaguares in consecutive weeks before returning home to play the Hurricanes, but other than that their draw looks good.
I suspect they might be in for a much better season.
The Waratahs: missed out on being Australia’s sole representative in the playoffs last year by three points to the Brumbies, but did introduce some good new talent such as bruising forward Jed Holloway and fullback Andrew Kellaway.
Kurtley Beale, Dave Dennis, Tatafu Polota Nau, Cliff Palu and Benn Robinson have all departed in different directions, so they have lost some experience, and haven’t made any real big name signings, although Sekope Kepu will be back for them, and midfield back Irae Simone looks a rare prospect.
They are always difficult to beat in Sydney, although this year they get only seven home games. Their trip to South Africa sees them play the Lions and Sharks which is challenging, but it comes early.
Their biggest issues in the last couple of years have been indiscipline, a carryover from the in-your-face tactics of the Michael Cheika tenure, and generating enough chances for their superstar Israel Folau, and it’ll be fascinating to see how coach Daryl Gibson uses him.
They certainly have the quality of personnel to get them in the frame, but they are under massive pressure to succeed in the cut-throat Sydney sports market.
The Brumbies: There is much to admire about the Brumbies' story, for the way they grew a champion team out of a bunch of Sydney and Brisbane offcuts and discards, but they’re up against it this year.
They’ve lost David Pocock, Stephen Moore, Matt Toomua, and Joe Tomane, while Christian Lealiifano is bravely fighting back from a serious illness, and Pumas halfback Tomas Cubelli could be gone for some time.
They’ve nabbed experienced flanker Chris Alcock and talented midfield back Kyle Godwin from the Western Force, and the Faingaa brothers from the Reds, but the calibre of the players they’ve lost suggests they could be in for a bit more of a struggle.
They’ve tended to play a pretty basic game, but without Pocock steering their driving maul they have lost a chief source of scoring points.
They also face an around-the-world trip, but it starts against the Kings, and their draw looks pretty good otherwise.
The Rebels: have put a massive amount on the signing of Marika Koroibete, the former Fiji league international who starred in the NRL before being lured to rugby by a combination of cash and a chance to play meaningful international sport.
The Melbourne outfit are sweating on the availability of the Fijian ahead of Thursday night's opener against the Blues, but if they can get him fit, the combo with Reece Hodge and another Fijian Sefa Naivalu, gives them some explosive potential. Their New Zealand presence is complimented by the arrival of Wellington's Jackson Garden Bachop.
But they’ll need some grunt up front, having lost the excellent Luke Jones, and powerhouse flanker Sean McMahon is doubtful for the opening weeks, when they face up to the New Zealand teams.
They have a reasonable draw, with three home games against New Zealand opposition and also get the advantage against the Lions and Jaguares, with the Sharks and Kings their opponents in South Africa.
It would be a surprise if they made the playoffs, but they’ve got enough talent to be taken seriously by any opponent, and Koroibete will make them very much worth watching.
Finally, the Western Force. Despite the determination of the rugby faithful in Perth and the ARU, the Force is lead contender for the chop from the Aussie conference if Sanzaar answer the calls to rationalise what has become, in the opinion of many, a bloated competition.
The Force used a rampant mining economy to lure some big Aussie names short term, and a host of Kiwi and South African imports.
Times have changed and they are now relying on public backing and a big prop up from the already cash strapped national union. They’ve tended to be well supported and have always been a potential banana skin for teams en route to or from South Africa, but the best they’ve ever managed is seventh and they don’t look realistic playoff prospects this year either.
It’s a precarious situation, and the pressure will be on new coach Dave Wessels, a former Jake White protégé who becomes, at just 34, the youngest Super Rugby coach to date.
The defections of Godwin and Alcock won’t help his cause, although he does get the admirable Polota Nau from the Waratahs for some veteran leadership, and he’s also signed Robbie Coleman from the Brumbies and another former league player, Curtis Rona, who looked good in a rather impressive showing by the Force in Brisbane.
Back to the future perhaps, with the Reds and Waratahs looking best contenders. If the other three teams don’t measure up it will at least greatly enhance the chances of both getting through while at the same time casting further doubts on the viability of five Aussie sides.
I’ll go with the ‘Tahs to edge it from Queensland.
African Group 2
Last year the Lions covered themselves in glory, with a vibrant, positive, mostly winning brand of rugby. But for an understandable, but fateful decision to send a weakened team to Argentina, they might well have claimed home advantage for the final.
Not only do they have a stable squad, they were clearly the best coached of the South African teams, and if they can build on that success they have every chance to do just as well this year, maybe even go one better.
The key will be trying to garner enough points to claim top spot on the combined log… the one Sanzaar keeps saying doesn’t exist! With that comes the home advantage through those exhausting final weeks.
They will miss two admirable players from last season. The shock retirement of the million tackle man Warwick Tecklenburg is covered by the arrival of Kwagga Smith, but world class prop Julian Redelinghuys leaves a big gap as he recovers from a neck injury.
Last year their only defeats, aside from the rogue result in Buenos Aires, were to the Hurricanes (twice), the Highlanders and Crusaders, and they don’t play those New Zealand teams this year in the round robin, which is a shame, but not exactly an impediment to their prospects.
We’ll be watching for the continued progress of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Malcolm Marx, but again much will focus on Elton Jantjies, who may not have been entirely convincing at test level, but is very much in the zone in Super Rugby.
It’s hard to see them not topping the group.
The Sharks: have looked a bit of a mess at times over the past couple of seasons, and for all the firepower they wielded, they only just made the playoffs ahead of the Bulls last year.
Losing Marcel Coetzee is a huge blow as he has been quite sensational when fit, while Paul Jordaan is a significant loss. Hopefully Pat Lambie will be healthy enough to get a full season in, because for all of the brilliance shown by Garth April, they missed Lambie's steady hand for an extended period in 2016.
There’s still plenty of established quality there, and the signing of the unpredictable French veteran Clement Poitrenaud is curious, but worth keeping an eye on.
Their campaign starts in Australia, with games against the Reds and Brumbies, and if they can get off to a solid start and stay in touch through the mid stages, they have a handy run of home games at the end against fellow South African sides.
Quite clearly a lot of the issues at the Sharks in recent years have been behind the scenes, and with hindsight it is hard to imagine what the thinking was behind the appointment of John Smit, a great player and leader on the field but with so little experience in such a demanding role. His decision to sack Jon Plumtree was certainly New Zealand's gain and Durban's loss.
Hopefully they have got the house in order, and with Robert du Preez stepping up as coach we should expect some improvement.
It’s hard to see them topping the Lions for the group, but they must be a decent shot at the wildcard at least.
The Jaguares: With their international laden roster I thought they might make the playoffs last year and was proven horribly wrong. In the end you got the impression they were treating their first season as a prolonged orientation exercise.
They read the old publicity blurbs for Super Rugby and over-committed on attack, and were far too lax on defence. They scored some breathtaking tries, but lost too many winnable games.
Travel proved to be almost as big an enemy as their own inconsistency. They really do get it tough.
Worryingly, they and the Pumas will lose the sensational Facundo Isa at the end of the season, the latest to be seduced by the charms of Toulon and their comic book emperor. But Benjamin Macome has returned from Europe, and there is always Leonardo Senatore, provided he doesn’t go all Hannibal Lecter again.
I’m loathe to get burnt by tipping them again, but I think we can expect them, with a year on the clock, to be more consistent and chalk up a few more wins, enough perhaps to threaten the playoff race.
Which leave us with the Kings: They avoided the wooden spoon last year by a whisker, leaked tries like a sieve, saw their fan-base dwindle, found themselves in financial strife and have now lost in Steven Sykes, Shane Gates and Edgar Marutlulle, three of their best players among a host of departures.
It might seem hypocritical to justify the Sunwolves while questioning the existence of the Kings in Super Rugby, but one has at least some strategic value for Sanzaar.
They have picked up a few good signings including Ross Geldenhuys, who returns after giving yeoman service to Tasman and the Highlanders, Waylon Murray and some interesting younger prospects, and have been able to retain the impressive CJ Velleman.
But, like the Sunwolves no-one is seriously expecting them to have much of an impact. The challenge is to prove they have a claim to be in this competition.
So there it is.
For the top eight I’ll plump for the Lions, Hurricanes, Waratahs, Bulls, Crusaders, Reds, Chiefs, and Sharks, with the Stormers, Highlanders, Blues and Jaguares close behind in the chasing pack for the playoffs, and, as always, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.
Let’s get it started.