2013 Super Rugby Preview

It is that time of year again when the cricket bats and tennis racquets are consigned to the back corners of sheds and the bottom of sports bags around the country and the rugby jerseys, beanies and scarves are taken out of moth balls for the commencement of the domestic rugby season here in Australia.

As I did last year I will be previewing every round of the Super 15 tournament this year on the Thursday before the round of fixture. In addition this year I will also be writing a “week in review” article every Tuesday to hit on the highlights and lowlights of each week in the Super 15.

Before everything kicks off this season it is time to run the ruler over each conference competing in the Super 15 this year and to gave into the crystal ball and predict how each team will fare in this year’s competition. Last year very few would have predicted that the Chiefs would ultimately lift the trophy so whilst trying to predict a winner of the competition at this early stage is a fools errand it is also whole lot of fun.

 

Blues

To say that the men from Auckland were disappointing last year would be an understatement. From the glory days of a few years ago, one of the most storied franchises in Super 15 rugby fell on hard times last year which has seen a broom swept through not only the coaching ranks but also the playing staff of the Blues for season 2013. The John Kirwan era at the Blues has begun with the jettisoning of players including Ma’a Nonu, Alby Mathewson, Daniel Braid, Tony Woodcock, Rudi Wolf, Isaia Toeava and Jerome Kaino. This will be a very young team and, it is fair to say, will be a rebuilding year that one does not expect to reach any greater heights the last year.

Conference placing: 5th

Overall placing: 13th

 

Brumbies

The Jake White revolution commenced in the nation’s capital with a surprise second placing in the Australian conference standings from the Brumbies that left followers of this franchise feeling a little empty after an end of season fade that cost them a final 6 spot. Last year saw the rise of many of the Brumbies young stars with none more impressive that Michael Hooper on the side of the scrum and Christian Lealiifano at number 10 until his season ending injury. The young stars of the Brumbies will benefit from the pain of last season’s choke as well as the recruitment of the second best number 7 in the game David Pocock. I predict they will do one better than last season and make the finals but will remain the second placed team in the Australian conference.

Conference placing: 2nd

Overall placing: 6th

 

Bulls

The second placed team in the South African conference was always there or thereabouts last season without setting the Super 15 world on fire as they continued to ground out game after game and rely on their opponents ill discipline to lead them to point scoring opportunities. It was a very successful game plan for much of the season that ebbed away for the men from Pretoria in the last six rounds when they could only manage wins against the Cheetahs and Lions. Coach Ludeke has kept the nucleus of last seasons squad here and whilst it is foreseeable that they will play a similar game play to last year it is also foreseeable that the top teams will now be alive to this strategy which could see the Bulls the victims of their own negativity. That being the case I can not see Bulls placing higher than third in the South African conference this season or figuring in the finals.

Conference placing: 3rd

Overall placing: 8th

 

Cheetahs

The Cheetahs have one of the toughest starts to the season facing last season’s grand finalists in their first two games and travelling to Sydney, Perth and Dunedin by the end of round 6. By that point either their season could be over before it really began if they get off to a bad start or they could be right in the heart of the battle for the top three in the South African conference. It has been an offseason replete with moves in Bloemfontein albeit the bulk of those moves have been out of the conference and, in some cases, the country. The Cheetahs season last season was one built around their attack and whilst attacking flair is likely to win them some matches against the lower teams in the competition if their defence does not improve they will again struggle against the “top” teams. I can not see them winning enough tough games to pip the Bulls for the third spot in the South African conference.

Conference placing: 4th

Overall placing: 11th

 

Chiefs

Last years champions were not one of the fancied sides at the beginning of the season but were, truth be told, dominate all season and won their title off the back of brutal defence in the forwards and speedy back line play that many teams had no answer for. Whilst they have lost the best front rower in Super 15 last season, Sona Taumalolo , and some bloke called Williams they have managed to keep together the bulk of the side that swept all before it last season. There can be no doubt that the crown of Super 15 champions will rest heavily on the men from the Waikato, with their conference mates in particular looking to knock them off. That said their coaches are just too good to not have been well prepared for this increased focus from the opposition and I again expect them to feature come finals time.

Conference placing: 1st

Overall placing: 2nd

 

Crusaders

It has been a turbulent off season for the men from Canterbury with Ben Franks, Quentin McDonald and Sean Maitland gone to other pastures and Richie McCaw and Zac Guilford both out of the game for the Super 15 season (assuming Guilford alcohol rehabilitation and self imposed exile lasts for the whole season). The bulk of their new signings from come from the feeder NPC competition in New Zealand rather than from other conferences. Whilst the shoes left by McCaw and others are massive to fill, the fact is that this team is still stacked with All Blacks and, in Dan Carter, probably the best player presently lacing up a boot. The real area of concern for them may well be in the loss of the potent finisher Guilford in the back line which might stunt their attacking spark. It will again be a very competitive New Zealand conference and this year I am projecting that the Crusaders might just be pushed out of the finals mix this year.

Conference placing: 3rd

Overall placing: 7th

 

Western Force

The Force have lost their best player in the off season in David Pocock and have not replaced him. The Force will also be without their talismatic leader since day one Nathan Sharpe for the first time. Those two factors alone should be enough to have new coach Michael Foley tossing and turning in his sleep. Even more so though should be the perennial problem with the Force: do they have enough fire power to score tries? The short answer, looking at their list, is no. Nick Cummins is a star of the future but he can not do it all on his own and this will leave the Force looking down the barrel of some very one sided score lines if their defence is not upto scratch. This is another rebuilding year for the Force and despite the devoted support of their light blue army I can not see them raising above last in the Australian conference again this year.

Conference placing: 5th

Overall placing: 14th

 

Highlanders

The Highlanders have added 232 All Black test caps to their line up with the recruitment of Brad Thorn, Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu to their lineup. Even more important for the Highlanders this season is their excellent draw: they do not leave New Zealand until round 13 and have a road trip that includes games against the Force, Rebels and Kings to bolster their win column as well as their for and against. It goes without saying that the recruitment of such experiences stars will raise questions about how deep the Highlanders can go into the season however if their come through their first month when they face the champion Chiefs twice and the Crusaders with 2 wins, I am projecting them to give this competition a real shake. Forsyth Barr Stadium will again be a fortress for them and in front of their large student support base I am expecting them to make the finals for the first time since 2002 and, indeed keep the Crusaders out.

Conference placing: 2st

Overall placing: 4nd

 

Hurricanes

Second year coach Mark Hammett did a wonderful job with a very young line up last year that exceeded the expectations of most by winning 10 games during the season. The addition of Ben Franks will more than cover the loss of Michael Bent and the remainder of losses from the squad that was so impressive last year were second stringers. The Hurricanes face a very tough road home in the final rounds of the competition so getting off to a swift start against the likes of the Force and Waratahs will be vital for their chances of playing a roll come finals time. This also means that the return of TJ Perenara from his broken leg will be vital because if he can ignite one of the most exciting backlines in the competition the Hurricanes could be a team to watch. All that said, I think they are more likely to threaten the finals come 2014 or 2015 as this young squad matures and thus I think they will just miss out this season again.

Conference placing: 4th

Overall placing: 9th

 

Kings

The new addition to Super 15 this summer after the predictable relegation of the Lions from the South African conference. The South African Rugby Union did the Kings no favors when it came to giving them time to procure a quality squad given their delay in ratifying their inclusion in the competition and much like the Lions before the only place that one can see the Kings coming in this competition is last. Their season starts against the Force however after that they face a very tough run of matches that could see them winless in Round 9 and, indeed, struggling to win a game all season. I hope the Kings get a decent run in this competition because their prospects of doing anything of note this season are very limited at best.

Conference placing: 5th

Overall placing: 15th

 

Rebels

It goes without saying that this is a squad replete with stars, the names O’Connor and Beale having been supplemented with the name Higginbotham on their team sheet, and it is certainly a younger squad than in previous years for the men from Melbourne. What comes though with having such big names in the squad is that the depth of same is tested once there are injuries. This was seen last year with O’Connor and Beale barely playing together because of injuries and the back ups not really performing at a consistent enough level to see the Rebels regularly challenge their opposition. In previous seasons the most impressive back row came out of the West but the back 5 of the Rebels scrum (Delve, Higginbotham, Neville and Pyle being four of the five) will go close this year. If that “back 5” can lay a solid foundation each week for O’Connor and Beale the Rebels could surprise a few teams and, indeed, bring the consistent high performances needed for them to cement their place in sport in Melbourne. No finals again this year in this franchises 3rd season but one gets the feeling that a finals role is not far away.

Conference placing: 3rd

Overall placing: 10th

 

Reds

The 2011 champions were devastated by injuries toward the back end of last season and whilst they made the finals the season finished with many looking at the talent not on the field for the Queenslanders and wondering what might have been. Will Genia will remain on the pine for first 8 weeks of the season however the return of James Horwill among others will be an important fillup for the Reds as they look once again to lead the Australian conference. Previous Reds teams have been typical E McKenzie line ups built around defence however this presents a team that has kept the bulk of its forward power (the loss of Higginbotham notwithstanding) coupled with a backline that is filled with Wallabies. If the forwards can lay a good foundation for Quade Cooper to unleash the likes of Morahan, Harris, Faingaa, Shipperly and Davies there are few teams in the competition that will stay with the Reds. The season for the Reds could all come down to which Quade Cooper comes to the ground. If it is the 2011 version of Cooper the Reds will be in line to again win the whole shooting match. If it is the 2012 version then the Reds will still win its conference but may struggle comes finals time.

Conference placing: 1st

Overall placing: 3rd

 

Sharks

The fast finishing Sharks were a surprise packet in the finals last season as they took all of the momentum of their late season run into the grand final where they were out played by the rampant Chiefs. They loss one of their key players from that charge to the finals Michalak back to French rugby but replace him with Butch James to complete probably the best balanced squad in the competition. From number 1 through 15 they have classy and talented players and if all of that talent can gel in the early weeks of the season, as distinct from their disastrous start to last season, they will be right at the pointy end of the table come finals time. I could write for pages about all of the good in this squad but it is simple enough to say that they should win their conference and be the minor premiers come the end of the season.

Conference placing: 1st

Overall placing: 1st

 

Stormers

To say that the Stormers play a boring style of rugby undersells just how good they were in executing their game plan last year. Brutal defence coupled with aerial dominance of all comers saw the Stormers win through to be the 1st placed team in the whole competition before the finals. Last season there were always nagging questions though about whether the Stormers could score enough points to win the whole tournament and such questions proved prophetic come finals time. This offseason the Stormers have picked up the cream of the jettisoned Lions players with no better signing being that of Elton Jantjies who looks set to start in place of Peter Grant. Jantjies is an excitement machine who will add another string to the Stormers game plan. The big test for the men from Cape Town will be whether they can gel their formerly taciturn, albeit successful, game plan with the more unorthodox play of their new fly half. I think that will take a couple of weeks and thus I expect them to get off to a slow start before powering into the finals in the back end of the season.

Conference placing: 2nd

Overall placing: 5th

 

Waratahs

The Waratahs welcome a new coach in Michael Cheika along with new recruits Michael Hooper and Israel Folau to a side that was disappointing to say the least last season. For a team so replete with Wallabies in both the forwards and backs it was as much the defensive mindset that they played with than anything else that set the Waratahs up for a season of failure. That will be coach Cheika’s challenge: can he mold a team with one of the most defensive mindsets in the competition in 2012 into a team that regularly challenges the top teams in each conference? He certainly has the players to do and he certainly has a forward pack capable, on its day, of dominating its opposition. The hopes of the Waratahs season could come down to the role of the men with numbers 9 and 10 on their backs. If they can get the ball to their backline at pace then they may well win more than their share of games. If they kick the ball away like they (and the Wallabies) did much of last season they can be expected to struggle again. It will take time for the Waratahs to adapt to Michael Cheika’s style and thus I am looking at them as more of a proposition for the finals in 2014 than this season.

Conference placing: 4th

Overall placing: 12th

 

 

About Stephen Humphreys

Steve is sports tragic and is particularly fanatical about rugby and cricket. A proud Reds member, Steve is also a fan of Wallabies as well as the Welsh team (when they are not playing the Wallabies). When not following rugby, cricket and all other sports, Steve is an account director at an accounting firm. Follow Steve on Twitter!

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