After a long summer filled with cricket (I am not complaining) finally this weekend hostilities resume in the Southern Hemisphere’s domestic rugby championship. As with previous years I will be writing a preview of each round’s fixtures. Here are my thoughts for Round 1.
Crusaders v Rebels
The season kicks off in Christchurch with the Crusaders hosting the Rebels. I rarely look at preseason form however if it is anything to go by the Rebels come into this fixture with all of the momentum having won two trials while the Crusaders failed to get a victory on the board in three trials.
It will be a new look Rebels outfit this year with recruitment having been a significant focus for the men from Melbourne in the offseason. Formers Reds Harris and Shipperly will certainly be welcome additions to the backline. For all of their excellent form at home, the Rebels are still yet to win a game on foreign soil and that hoodoo may haunt them again this season.
The Crusaders are the worst starters to a season in sport. That would be a problem if they weren’t the best finishers to a season in sport. They have selected their big guns in Carter and McCaw for this game and have a team that is stacked with All Blacks.
On paper this should be the Crusaders and by plenty however the Rebels have a habit of running the Crusaders close in games so this start to the season could well be a close run thing. I am still tipping the Crusaders to start the season with a win but not by many.
Crusaders by 8
Brumbies v Reds
Australia’s Super Rugby season commences in Canberra with the Brumbies hosting the rebuilding Reds. I have been very negative on social media about the recruitment activities of the Reds (among other things) however I remain an avid fan of the Queenslanders. I apologise now if my previews of Reds games are unbalanced but it is what it is!
The Reds have named a number of debutants this week and none of those is more important than the selection of Karmichael Hunt at number 10. I know Hunt is an experienced athlete but this is his first competitive game (trials aside) of senior rugby and he is against a Wallaby in Matt Toomua.
The Brumbies have a similar look to squads of previous years but they will welcome the return of two of their talismatic players in the form of David Pocock and Steven Moore. The Brumbies are the benchmark in Australian domestic rugby (yes Waratahs fans I know you won last year) and they will be looking to rest the top spot in Australia back that they think it there.
The Brumbies will be looking to make a statement to start the season and the Reds have one of the most inexperienced number 10s to start a game in the history of Super Rugby. The brumbies should win this game and win it well.
Brumbies by 14
Lions v Hurricanes
The first fixture in South Africa kicks off in the early hours of Saturday morning (Brisbane time) with the Lions hosting the Hurricanes in Johannesburg. It has been three years since these teams met so a form line is difficult to predict.
The Hurricanes have selected all of their All Blacks available for this game and will be looking to get off to a positive start to the season where away points will be vital to finals spots and with the resting of key players a likelihood with the World Cup approaching.
I can not see the Lions improving on their placement at the bottom of the Super Rugby standings this year given their limited recruitment and the ever contracting player pool in South Africa. They will surprise a few teams but ultimately their chances of not being on the bottom of the South African conference are miniscule at best.
The Hurricanes should win this fixture and should win it with a bonus point.
Hurricanes by 16
Blues v Chiefs
Saturday night rugby this season kicks off in North Harbour with the Blues hosting the Chiefs. These teams meet in the midst of the Chiefs holding a seven game victory streak against the Blues.
Both teams have team sheets filled with All Blacks. The Chiefs have been aggressive in recruitment over the course of the summer break and will have seven new faces in their line up from last season. Most interesting of those new faces will be Sonny Bill Williams in his return, again, to rugby.
The Blues have been less aggressive recruitment wise this season and have a look similar to last years team which had a chequered season to say the least. The continuity in their line up from last year will to their advantage in this game.
The Chiefs are a vastly different line up to last year. It may take them some time to gel but they do have one of the best in the game in Williams in their backline which is a significant plus for them. I think this will be a close game and I am tipping the Blues to sneak home in this one off the back of their home crowd advantage.
Blues by 4
Sharks v Cheetahs
Durban plays host to the first South African derby of the season with the Sharks hosting the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs have been on a rollercoaster of late having made the finals in 2013 and then dropped out again in 2014. They come into this season with a weaker looking squad than last year. A lot of their stars have moved to Europe and they have not replaced them.
The Sharks come into this game with a team packed with international players including an all Springboks front row. They look a powerful line up again and many pundits, including me (albeit I am a hack rather than a pundit) are tipping them to win at least the South African conference this year.
The Sharks will win this game and will win it with a bonus point.
Sharks by 18
Bulls v Stormers
The second South African derby this weekend, and the match of the round for mine, sees the Bulls host the Stormers. Set your alarms those of us in Australia to get up to watch this one as it will be a cracking encounter heavy on physicality and low on scoring.
The Bulls have recruited brilliantly in the off season. They have added the best of the Cheetahs including the former Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss. With all of these Cheetahs in their line up now they, undoubtably, will be looking to play a more attacking style of game than in previous seasons.
The Stormers, conversely, are coming into this game with six debutantes having seen another exodus of players to European clubs over the summer break.
This will be a physical encounter. That said I expect the Bulls to win this game and continue their dominance against the Stormers in Pretoria here.
Bulls by 10
Waratahs v Force
The first round of Super 15 finishes with an Australian derby and Sunday afternoon rugby in Sydney with the Waratahs hosting the Force.
The Waratahs are still on a high after winning the competition last year and play this fixture in friendly confines having gone undefeated last season in Sydney and being on a 10 game winning streak at home.
The Force have proven in recent years to be Australia’s best spoiling team. In games in Australia the Force seem to grow a metaphorical 16th player however they come into this game with Matt Hodgson and Nick Cummins which are significant losses.
The Waratahs will continue their winning streak at home and win this fixture with a bonus point.
Waratahs by 13