It is finally here: the first round of the Queensland Reds defence of their 2011 Super 15 title and what a week of scintillating rugby awaits us.
The Super 15 season commences in Auckland with the Blues taking on the Crusaders at Eden Park. This looks to be a bottler of a game with the two teams I expect to top the New Zealand conference this year going head to head straight off the bat. The Blues have probably recruited the best of any team in the competition, with the pick up of Piri Weepu in particular likely to give them a crisper look in attack. Conversely the Crusaders are without both of their legends in McCaw and Carter, which will no doubt have a large bearing on their early season. The Crusaders were unimpressive in their lacklustre beating of the pedestrian Rebels and that does not bode well for them in this game. If Carter and McCaw were playing this would easily be the match of the round for mine. My tip is the Blues by 8.
After what bodes as a cracking game at Eden Park, the Super 15 carnival moves to Canberra Stadium where the Brumbies will be attempting to exorcise the demons of a disastrous last season against the similarly rebuilding Western Force. Whilst the Brumbies have had a complete clean out across all of their ranks, the Force have maintained a significant core of the team from last season and have promoted the impressive David Pocock to the captaincy role. In what I think will be a close game, I think the plethora of Wallabies in the Force’s line up will have too much experience over what is really a new combination for the Brumbies. In a tight one my tip is the Force by 4.
The final Friday night fixture sees Super 15 fans look to Loftus Versfeld for the always spicy encounter between the hometown Bulls and the Sharks of Durban. The Sharks scraped into the finals last season and have lost some big name players such as Terblanche in the off season without making significant replacements. Conversely the Bulls seem to have shed some dead weight from last year whilst recruiting well from their conference rivals. Hometown advantage is always a big factor in this encounters and that leans me towards the Bulls. My tip is the Bulls by 6.
The first game of Saturday is frankly another cracker from the NZ conference with the Chiefs hosting the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. This is a match up between two of the more disappointing lineups from last year; and as such, both sides are seeking to redress last year’s poor performance with a phalanx of new players. Whilst most pundits are focused on the recruitment of Sonny Bill Williams as having saviour-like status for the Chiefs, I for one strongly believe that the inclusion of Aaron Cruden will be vital to said team’s campaign this year. The Highlanders are stricken by injuries after their 3 trial matches which does not bode well for the remainder of the season. That injury count leads me to the view that the Chiefs will win this game and will win it easily: Chiefs by 17.
Then we get to the game of the round: the Waratahs hosting the Reds at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. The old rivalry resumes with a mouth watering clash that unfortunately I think will not be all that the pundits are assuming it will be for one very important reason: the Waratahs have so many injury concerns that I don’t think will we will be seeing the best team that they can put on the park. Lachie Turner is already out for the season, new captain Rocky Elsom won’t play for the few weeks, Dan Vickerman is out and Drew Mitchell is also likely to miss the start of the season. The Reds are without Cooper but that aside they run out basically a full strength side. The Reds are the class lineup of the Australian conference and with their quality in both the forwards and the backs I expect them to run over a depleted Waratahs line up: Reds by 12.
The best game of the round is followed by a game I consider likely to be the most lopsided with the Hurricanes drawing the short straw and travelling to Cape Town to take on the Stormers at Newlands. The Hurricanes have had a clean out of their squad from last year and have lost or let go a number of veterans in the form of Weepu, Hoar and Gear. With few quality replacements being picked up, they are my early tip for the wooden spoon this year. The Stormers were a dominant force last year at home and coming off a finals loss to the Crusaders, will be looking to go one step further this year. All signals point to a Stormers victory by a big margin: Stormers by 23.
The first round of the Super 15 for 2012 is rounded out with the Lions hosting the Cheetahs in the battle for the wooden spoon in the South African conference. The Cheetahs have lost one of their key players from last year with Pretorius moving to the Waratahs. Without him they will lose much of their attacking flair. The Lions seem by all reports to be a team crippled by infighting and have had what can only be described as a poor off season to put it nicely. Ultimately, in a battle of two ordinary teams I expect a close encounter with the Lions ultimately getting over the line on the back of their home town support: Lions by 3.
Bye: Melbourne Rebels
Match of the Round: Can’t go past the Waratahs v Reds game as the match of the round this week with the first game of the season (Blues v Crusaders) a very close second.
Game to miss: If you miss the Lions v Cheetahs you will not miss much in my view so if you don’t do the live broadcast, the highlights should suffice.