It is hard to believe it but the waiting for the start of the Super Rugby season is almost over. It is 206 days since that day in August when the Chiefs bested the Brumbies for the 2013 Super Rugby title and whilst there has been test match rugby and domestic rugby to fill the void (and, well, plenty of cricket to watch) I for one have been looking forward to this season almost since the last one finished.
Once again this year I will be writing a weekly preview of the matches of each round and looking into my metaphorical crystal ball to try to select the winners . I have spent a fair bit of time over recent weeks looking at each conference in Super Rugby and am fairly certain that this is going to be one of the most intriguing seasons yet.
That being the case, and without further ado, here is my preview and prediction for each team for the coming tournament.
The Blues have taken back into their ranks veterans Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino as well as picked up rugby league defector Benji Marshall. A cursory glance over their list raises, bizarrely for a New Zealand conference team, question marks over their depth, particularly in the forwards. That said, they have an exciting and youth filled backline that has the potential to score a lot of points, but only if the gamble of slotting in the “unknown” Marshall pays off.
The era of Jake White was marked by a return by the Brumbies to the top echelon of Super Rugby teams and with Stephen Larkham now taking over the reigns there is much expectation that the men from Canberra can go one step further last year and win the whole thing. The backline is replete with young Wallabies including Messrs Toomua and Lealiifano and they will welcome back the second best flanker in the game, David Pocock, from his long injury lay off. They are deserved favourites for the Australian conference.
This presents as a tough season for the Bulls, despite their list which boast 15 Springboks, given that they have faced a massive loss of players to Europe and Japan since the end of last season. The most obvious hole is that left by Morne Steyn: there has been no better kicker in Super Rugby then him and his productivity from his right foot will be missed. The Bulls were never going to be able to replace those players who have left and whilst Victor Matfield’s return adds much interest as to how they will go, I remain of the view that a season struggle, by Bulls standards, awaits.
One of the stories of the 2013 Super Rugby season was the Cheetahs run to the finals. That run to the finals was built off a much improved defence whilst maintaining their difficult to predict attacking style. They have, like all members of this conference, lost a number of players to overseas leagues but have retained some of their most talismatic talent particularly in the forward line. If they can maintain their defensive intensity from last season they will again score more tries than most opponents that places them in good stead in my view to repeat last season’s success.
The two time defending champions have added to their backline two of the best in the business: Mils Muliaina and Robbie Fruean. These are additions to a backline that scored more tries than anyone else in Super Rugby 2013. Aaron Cruden is presented with a perfect opportunity to step out of Dan Carter’s shadow and make the All Black Number 10 jersey his own and will do so with the added responsibility of being Liam Messam’s co-captain. Only the Crusaders have won three Super Rugby championships in a row. It would be fair to say the Chiefs are the shortest of short priced favourites to replicate that result here.
It feels like a case of déjà vu this season for the Crusaders: much like 2013 they will be without one of the greatest players to lace a boot this season due to a sabbatical. Last year it was Lord McCaw and this year it is Dan Carter who will have his feet up. Colin Slade will slot into the gaping hole left by Carter. The ‘Saders will again possess one of the best forward packs in the competition however in the early rounds they will be without both McCaw and Read. It wouldn’t be a Super Rugby season without the tradition slow start from the Crusaders. One worries, much like one did last year (and was proven wrong), whether Slade can lead them back into contention in shadows of the end of the season.
The Force have been the perennial underperformers of the Australian conference and nothing in their list makes one think that this season will be any different. Nick Cummins has been excellent for them in the past but the question mark looming large over him and the remainder of the backline is whether they will get enough ball from their under-performing forward pack to score points. The Force were the worst attacking team in the competition last year and it is hard to see them improving on that this year.
There has been no bigger off season mover since August 2013 than the Highlanders. Unfortunately much of the movement has been of the nature of an exodus by the phalanx of All Blacks previously recruited by Jamie Joseph to play in the deep south. I suspect, looking through their list that the Highlanders will face the same struggles this year as last year and I really have wrestled with the conundrum of who they will defeat at all during the season. The Lions and the Force are probable candidates and it will be these three teams who will fight out the battle of wooden spoon honours (again).
The Hurricanes were one of the most frustrating teams to follow last season. They continue to underperform, particularly against teams you would expect them to best. Cory Jane returns to the Hurricanes line up this season and will slot into a backline that will be ably led by Perenara and Barrett. Whilst they look like they have attacking weapons, the forward pack looks lacking in drive which could see the ‘Canes on the back foot for much of the season. They have the toughest start to the season of any of the teams (Sharks into Stormers into Brumbies all away) and could swiftly find themselves in the cellar.
The Lions have returned to Super Rugby competition after a season out of the tournament off the back of a hardly convincing win in the end of season play off against the Southern Kings. A team of no names save for Elton Jantjies it is hard to see them winning a game save for the battles they are likely to have with the Western Force and Highlanders. I expect them to again be in the end of season play off to see who plays in Super Rugby 2015 and, frankly, expect them to win the wooden spoon again this year.
2014 has the feel of the freshest of fresh starts for the Rebels with the cancer that was the O’Connor / Beale show now excised and a new coach at the helm. It was a moderately quiet off season recruitment wise, certainly in the sense of picking up big names, and they Rebels will be looking for full seasons from their veterans in Higginbotham and Burgess to assist in leading this inexperienced team around the park. It is hard to see the Rebels rise higher than 4th in the Australian conference in what will be a rebuilding year for them.
Richard Graham is now fully in control at the Reds and will be looking at making his mark as coach one suspects by improving the Reds’ finishing. Last season’s second place finish in the Australian conference was off the back of defence and was despite a less than stellar season from Will Genia who will be smarting from his axing from the Wallabies team in the winter break. Indeed this is a team where many will have much to prove to their old coach (J Horwill I am looking at you) and given that they possess probably the most stable squad in the Australian conference is easy to see them challenging the Brumbies for the top spot.
Jake White broke his Brumbies contract to return to South Africa and take over the reigns of the men from Durban. To be fair, given the phalanx of injuries they had last year, their failure to make the finals was certainly explainable and of the other teams in the conference they have done better at retaining their players. The front row is the best in domestic rugby in my view and behind what will again be a formidable forward pack, Patrick Lambie will have the opportunity to set his back line alight. If there is a team that can break the Chiefs’ stranglehold on the title it, to me, is the Sharks.
The Stormers missed the finals last season having been the perennial favourites (and then underperformers in finals) for the title for some time. Like the bulk of the South African provinces they have been hit by the exodus of players from South Africa to France and Japan and whilst they are welcoming back Schalk Burger he is hardly a replacement for the likes of Bryan Habana. Eben Etzebeth has been ruled out of Super Rugby 2014 with injury and that could well be the final nail in the coffin of the Stormers finals aspriations before the season has even started.
If you look at the Waratahs list (and compare it to the Australian team) you would be mistaken for thinking you were looking at the favourites for the Australian conference. A fair smattering of talent across their player group has been enhanced by the now seemingly rehabilitated Kurtley Beale to again create was looks like a squad that could challenge the top teams. The nagging question for me though is whether Coach Cheika can extract performances out of his charges that much the talent in the list. If there is a “smokey” to come from the Australian conference this year it is the Waratahs.
The Final Word
It would be fair to say that I was embarrassed last year by my tip that the Highlanders would win the New Zealand conference given how they performed but I have to say that I would be astonished if the same thing happened to the Chiefs this year. They are rightly the favourites to win the tournament again this year and, frankly it would be a massive upset if they did not. I am also very keen on the Sharks.
This will be, as I noted above, an intriguing season particularly in the case of the depleted South African teams. If Super Rugby 2014 is anywhere near as good as the 2013 version was we are in for an absolute treat!