The Super Rugby season is almost upon us and it’s more confusing than ever before with the introduction of 3 new teams and a convoluted system to choose the playoff teams. I’ll leave that all for another time and just take a look at the teams and how I think they will go.
After a Rugby World Cup there is always a migration of players heading north. This will impact some teams more than others and as always a coaches ability to get a squad working together quickly will be paramount. Let’s take a look at the conferences in order.
Brumbies – 6th & Semi-final
Force – 15th
Rebels – 10th
Reds – 13th
Waratahs – 2nd & Semi-final
The Brumbies made it to the semi-finals before losing out to the Canes. Impressively Larkham has also managed to keep hold of most of his players. With White and Mogg being the notable losses. They start with a couple of home fixtures so they’ll be looking for a fast start and then to carry the momentum through the season. Having that settled team will be a help and I’m backing them to top the conference.
The Force were poor last year after a surprise away win in the first round against the Tah’s it wasn’t until round 13 they got their second win. With the same coach and not many new players it’s hard to see how they are going to improve. The addition of three new teams means that they shouldn’t come last in the overall log but they’ll be bottom of the Australian conference.
The Rebels had a breakthrough season last year. The question now is can they build on that? A decent NRC campaign by the Melbourne Rising will have given their young players further opportunity to develop. There has been some turnover in the pack and a lot could come down to Adam Thompson’s leadership during tough games especially away. I’m expecting them to be able to grow and take third in the conference again. This would amazingly put them in contention for the playoffs in the new format.
The Reds are a disaster, they somehow still have the same coach, who was a dead man walking entering last season, is still in charge. From a squad point of view they have quality again but have lost all their second rows and first choice half-back pairing. Last season they were saved by the dreadful Blues and Force and it’s looking like much the same hence I expect them to come second last in the conference.
The Tah’s have a new coach but he is being promoted from within so there is continuity, still it’s a new man at the top. Also with 15 players leaving there has been some turnover in the squad. Most weren’t starters but the loss of Kepu and ACC will be felt for different reasons in the squad. Foley is also one of the players to have a flexible contract and so hasn’t had a rest since the Rugby World Cup. These little changes will all have an effect and I think the Tah’s will be not quite up to last seasons standards and come in second in the conference.
New Zealand Conference
Blues – 14th
Chiefs – 5th & Quarter-final
Crusaders – 7th
Highlanders – 4th & Champions
Hurricanes – 1st & Runners-up
The common opinion is that the Blues are coming out of years of under achievement under Kirwan. There have been good results in preseason but we shouldn’t read too much into those games. With 23 players leaving or retiring there is a feeling of fresh air with Umaga being in charge rather then mass turnover. With other teams in transition there is a chance for Blues to do better but third in the conference would be a great achievement. It would also put them in contention for that last playoff position.
Chiefs have lost 19 players which is less than the Blues but it feels more like high turnover than a fresh start. Rennie is still there and has been doing a great job but even he talked about the amount of change in the squad. Last season the Chiefs weren’t the same side that has recently won a couple of championships and keeping key players fit is going to be very important. To be fair that applies to most Super Rugby sides. How ever in the toughest of conferences I think we could see them falling to fourth.
The Crusaders have lost the most high profile figures in Richie and Dan. But it goes much deeper than that with all three 10s having left. Also they are entering the season with a ling injury list already. You feel a lot will depend on how well Marty McKenzie settles into Super Rugby and can he get the ball to Nadolo who will be their key attacking player again. Personally I think they are going to come bottom of the pile as they start the rebuilding process.
The Highlanders won their first ever Super Rugby championship last year and they have managed to keep hold of their All Blacks. It was telling last year that when the All Blacks players were rested the Landers lost so their retention was essential. They are one of the most settled sides with only 5 new players in the squad but there have been some key losses in the back row. Still I think the Champions with a settled squad should be looking to go one better and top the conference.
The Canes are another squad that are very settled with again only 5 players joining the squad. However there have been some high profile losses first in Franks and Thrush in the pack and Nonu and Smith in the centres. Those will be key losses and whilst the Canes will be weakened by these they still have a strong squad. This will be Boyd’s second season so his structures will be in place and I see them pushing the Highlanders all the way only to come up short and finish second in the conference.
Africa 1 Conference
Bulls – 9th
Cheetahs – 12th
Stormers – 3rd & Quarter-final
Sunwolves – new team
The Bulls had a disappointing season last year and with Pollard already injured things aren’t looking smooth sailing early doors. They are another team that has seen a lot of change with at least 18 players leaving. I say at least as the list I have has Hougaard as a player but he’s in England at the moment. There is also a new head coach so they are a bit of an unknown. I think this is a rebuilding season for them but with the other sides in the conference they should still come second.
Cheetahs had their moments last season but they were few and far between, after they had lost their best players over the offseason. This season sees high player turnover again with 22 players moving on. It’s not only the numbers but also the key players that are going and so I see them struggling again. Lucky for them though they have the Sunwolves in their conference and so should come third.
The Stormers were the only South African side to make the playoffs last year. There has been some uncertainty over the break about coaching staff with Fleck being promoted internally eventually. That should mean that the playing style is in place and whilst they have had player turnover it’s not been to the extent of the other sides. This should be successful season with them topping the group relatively comfortably.
The Sunwolves have been a farce but it looks like they have a team and some coaches finally. I’m not a great fan of Hammett and it will be interesting how his style fits in in Japan. After a successful Rugby World Cup casual fans will have some expectations of the side. Unfortunately they have failed to sign up the key stars from that campaign. I think the lack of quality along with lack of preparation time and excessive travel will see the struggle badly. I’m wondering where their first win is going to come from and can only see them coming last.
Africa 2 Conference
Jaguares – new team
Kings – new team
Lions – 8th
Sharks – 11th
Jaguares are the new team from Argentina. In stark contrast to the Sunwolves they have signed the majority of their national side. Also all the announcements were made in plenty of time and it looks from the outside that they are organised and all ready. I think that they will be a real handful at home but will struggle with the travel. The organisation needs to learn how to structure the travel and fit in training and rest for example. Their home form though should be enough to see them come second.
The Kings are another side that have been in total turmoil. They have supposedly run out of money and players haven’t been paid. There’s been silly politics happening at the Union meetings and Rugby South Africa has had to step in. Most of the players know each other from Eastern Province Kings but with all the mess off the field we can’t know how they will react. Will it pull the squad together or will they all be worrying how to pay the mortgage? It all looks like last place to me.
The Lions came so close last year with an attractive brand of rugby. They have a very settled squad with only 3 players joining. Ackermann will have all his structures in place and they should get off to a fast start. If they can keep injury free then they should be able to carry that moment through and top the conference. The question is will their players start get International recognition and if so will they tire towards the end of the season?
Sharks were limited last year and they still have Gold at the helm setting the tactics. They are a side that has had a high turnover of players as well. When you run down the list of players leaving they are also most of the household names so like the Bulls this feels like a changing of the guard. Unlike the Bulls though they don’t have two weaker teams to finish below them. So this is a rebuilding season and third is as good as it’s going to get.
That’s how I see things panning out, please let me know your thoughts either in the comments below or on Twitter @DrivingMaul.
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