AUCKLAND, NZ – Super Rugby kicks off this weekend and, as I alluded to in my players to watch column, interest is pretty low. Which is standard here in NZ at least, listening to the inevitable backlash of idiots on talkback radio whining about how long the rugby season is got old about 15 years ago. It always strikes me as odd that these fools think that rugby isn’t important enough for them to watch, yet ringing up to complain about the fact that they’re not watching it is.
Anyway, it’s probably a good time to go through the 15 teams contesting Super Rugby this year and rate their chances before tackling the rather difficult task of trying to pick the results of week one. I’ve split them up into three categories: Contenders, Pretenders and No-Hopers.
Crusaders (NZ conference, 2014 position: runners-up) – The Christchurch-based outfit has fashioned a peerless record in Super Rugby history that sees them earn the first spot on the contenders list. To be honest, they could have Danny Cipriani starting at first five for them and they’d still be in the discussion about who’s going to win. A barely changed squad from last year will help too, as will the return of certain Mr. Dan Carter.
Chiefs (NZ conference, 2014 position: play-offs, 5th) – The word ‘stacked’ does a fairly adequate job of describing the 2015 Chiefs, at least in the midfield anyway. Not only do they welcome back Sonny Bill Williams from his latest NRL adventure, they’ve also picked up Seta Tamanivalu. These two provide enough excitement alone to tune in to the Chiefs, however you can add in the likes of Aaron Cruden, Augustine Pulu, Sam Cane and the return of veteran Hosea Gear as well.
Waratahs (Australian conference, 2014 position: champions) – Everyone thought the Tahs were all hat and no cattle last year (given their past record in Super Rugby, there’s no shame in having held that view), but the rich boys from Sydney proved everyone wrong. They were helped in no small part from a massive season from Israel Folau, who will look to return strongly after a somewhat disappointing Wallabies season. Like the Crusaders, their squad changes are minimal, so it’s fair to say they’ll be looking to turn their championship into a dynasty.
Sharks (South African conference, 2014 position: semi-finalist) – For a while there last season it looked as though all the Sharks had to do to win their first Super Rugby championship was show up to their last few games, such was their dominance. However, for some unknown reason, the Sharks went from apex predator to fishbait in a few short weeks, not even looking like they cared when they lost their playoff to the Crusaders in Christchurch. The big broom has been swept through at the highest level with Jake White getting shown the door, replaced by Gary Gold. This means abrasive loose forward Jean Deysel returns to the team, apparently him and White fell out over White not accepting his Facebook friend request (OK, it was probably something a bit more serious than that).
Brumbies (Australian conference, 2014 position: semi-finalist) – Given their most significant player loss was the shock retirement of midfielder Pat McCabe, the Brumbies squad looks very solid going into 2015. For a side that has become best known for it’s style of play as methodical as a Canberra road layout over the years, the Brumbies really opened up and gave the ball a bit of air to the likes of Christian Lealiifano, Joe Tomane and the highly impressive Henry Speight. If they maintain their impressive home record they should be a shoe-in for the playoffs, given the relative weakness of the Australian conference.
Highlanders (NZ conference, 2014 position playoffs, 6th) – The perennial battlers of the NZ conference return with a few issues up front, but some serious firepower out back. Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith were insanely good last season and hopefully Fekitoa doesn’t suffer second year syndrome. If they can get first five Lima Sopoaga to improve on his promising 2014 then they may be able to get over a rather inexperienced tight five and reach the same heights they did last year.
Reds (Australian conference, 2014 position: 13th) – Well, they really can’t do much worse than last year. Everything went wrong for the hapless Reds; injuries, shock losses and the refs hated them for some reason. Some pretty high-profile signings should inject some new excitement into the Queensland, notably former All Black Adam Thomson, Japanese number 8 Hendrick Tui and code-swapping wonder-boy Karmichael Hunt. I’m picking a huge improvement from the Reds this season given that they’re definitely seething that their hated rivals the Waratahs got to win it last year.
Bulls (South African conference, 2014 position: 9th) – After a surprisingly good 2014 campaign given the amount of player turnover from the year before, the Bulls have stocked up with some experience up front to compliment their young flyers. Springbok hooker Adriaan Strauss is probably most notable move, he’ll look to link up with veteran Victor Matfield who is unbelievably returning for another season (most probably in an attempt to win a bet he’s got with Brad Thorn to see who can keep playing pro rugby until they are 100). Another return sees Pierre Spies come back to terrorize from the back of the big Bulls pack.
Hurricanes (NZ conference, 2014 position: 7th) – Maybe it’s the fact that the Canes are laden with All Blacks, maybe it’s because somehow they managed to stay in the playoff hunt right up until the last round last year, or maybe it’s because I’m a long-suffering fan. They probably don’t deserve to be in the contenders list, but it’s hard not to be intrigued by a team with Julian and Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles in it. But then again, new coach Chris Boyd recently sent the Wellington ITM Cup into relegation and made himself about as popular as the man he replaced. So, like every year of Super Rugby, who knows with the Hurricanes.
Force (Australian conference, 2014 position: 8th) – The Force deserved to make the playoffs last year after probably the biggest prediction-defying season by a Super Rugby side ever. However, they’ve lost the advantage of surprise this year as all the other teams won’t be treating their trips to Perth as a short holiday on their way to NZ or South Africa. They’ve lost Jayden Hayward, a pretty influential player in their great run last year, but have made a couple of interesting signings in Albert Nikoro and Akihito Yamada. While they might not scale the heights they did last year, they’ll still take a few big scalps.
Blues (NZ conference, 2014 position: 10th) – If I thought being a Canes fan was hard, I comfort myself by reminding myself that I don’t have to put up with the rubbish that is the Blues of the last 10 years. Why? Because the Blues were once good and have absolutely no reason not to be that way anymore. That won’t change in 2015 and as much as the NZ media loves Sir John Kirwan, his job is on the line unless he can’t make that change.
Stormers (South African conference, 2014 position: 11th) – The bore-mongers of the past few seasons have given little reason for their surprisingly loyal fanbase to get excited about 2015. First off, their best player (Jean de Villiers) is out for the entire Super Rugby campaign. Coach Allister Cotzee is set to split at the end of the season no matter what, so if things don’t go right early on, he’ll probably start spending his time counting the yen he’ll be making up in Japan rather than directing this under-performing franchise.
Lions (South African conference, 2014 position: 12th) – The Lions were kind of the poor man’s Force last year, as they too pulled off some big upsets (although any win could be described as an upset for a team that didn’t even have a jersey sponsor). Like the Force, foes will be wise to their abilities this time around but they do have a reasonably favourable draw.
Cheetahs (South African conference, 2014 position: 14th) – From my thorough research, the Cheetahs have lost one important player (Adriaan Strauss) and about 20 I’ve never heard of. They’ve replaced them with a bunch of guys who are similarly unknown to anyone outside of South African provincial and lower grade European competitions. That should give you a reasonable expectation of their chances.
So there’s a look at each team’s chances in what will be the last year of Super Rugby in it’s 15 team format. That’s right, next year there’ll be a couple more additions to the no-hopers list when the new Japanese and Argentinean franchise get the green light, along with another South African side. But that’s all off in the distant future, right now we’re only concerned about round one of Super Rugby 2015, ominously starting on Friday the 13th:
The first ball kicked in anger will be at AMI Stadium in Christchurch, where the Crusaders host the Rebels. #CRUvREB
If you’ve just read the column above, then the outcome of this game should be fairly straightforward. The Crusaders ease into their season with an easy encounter and, despite not having the services of last year’s destructive force Nemani Nadolo just yet, will prove too good for the Rebels. Score prediction: Crusaders by 18. Man to watch: Dan Carter, who probably didn’t think that this season was going to turn into an 18 week All Black trial.
The action moves over the Tasman to Canberra as the Brumbies take on the Reds At GIO Stadium. #BRUvRED
The Reds have a pretty tough test first up to see if they’ve buried their awful 2014 campaign in the off-season, but winning in Canberra was actually something did manage to do last year. The Brumbies won’t be taking any chances and may look to keeping the ball in the middle of the park and playing some old-school possession based play their new head coach Stephen Larkham was so fond of in his playing days. Score prediction: Brumbies by 3. Man to watch: Karmichael Hunt has been handed the Reds 10 jersey in his first Super Rugby start, no pressure mate.
In the early hours of Saturday morning we go to Ellis Park, Johannesburg, the home of the Lions, who welcome the Hurricanes. #LIOvHUR
Any NZ team starting off Super Rugby with a South African tour has it tough, so the Canes should probably have a word with the organisors as they’ve had to do it twice in a row. The Lions toughed out a couple of good home wins early on last year, benefitting from teams tendencies to forget the rules in the offseason and punishing them with accurate kicking. Score prediction: Lions by 5. Man to watch: Jason Woodward finally gets to play for the Super Rugby team he grew up supporting after a solid year with the Rebels last season.
Saturday night sees a local derby in Albany, the temporary home of the Blues. They’ll square off against the Chiefs, who used to call QBE Stadium home. #BLUvCHI
Hopefully there’s a few girlfriends and wives out there who like the idea of spending Valentines Day at the footy, but a useful way to help sway their opinion is to tell them they can ogle at Sonny Bill Williams for 80 minutes. The last time these two teams played here it was an absolute belter with the Chiefs pipping the Blues 37-35. A classic like that would be great, but the Chiefs have been strong starters in the last few seasons while the Blues usually take a few rounds to wake up. Score prediction: Chiefs by 10. Man to watch: Former All Black halfback Jimmy Cowan gets a start for the Blues in his first game on NZ soil since 2012.
Overnight in Durban the Sharks look to open their account when they meet the Cheetahs at Kings Park. #SHAvCHE
While the result might not be in doubt, the real question mark will be over how the Sharks approach this game. Will they continue the turgid but effective style that Jake White used to great effect in 2014 (at least till the business end of the season, anyway)? Or will they try and open it up? The Cheetahs will probably give the ball a bit of air when they can and look to involve Springbok flanker Oupa Mohoje as much as possible. Score prediction: Sharks by 15. Man to watch: Pat Lambie will be looking to push his case as much as possible this season to perhaps edge in front of Handre Pollard for the Bok 10 jersey.
There’s another big South African derby at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria, where the Bulls lock horns with the Stormers. #BULvSTO
Wait, does a Stormer have horns? The traditional big boys of the South African conference will most probably try and bash each other to bits up front, with the Bulls speedsters looking to benefit out wide. One of the most notable improvements from a Bulls perspective has to be their 2015 jersey, which, while not entirely tasteful, is a vast improvement on their awful ones from last year. So there’s an early confidence boost! Score prediction: Bulls by 8. Man to watch: Pierre Spies will come off the bench at some stage, it’ll be interesting to see if he can recapture the sort of form that made him so dominant back when the Bulls were three-time champs.
Last game of round one takes place at Allianz Stadium, Sydney, where the defending champion Waratahs battle the Force. #WARvFOR
This promises to be the most entertaining match of the weekend, with the Tahs having the star power and the Force having the attitude to throw the ball around and play attractive rugby. Unfortunately for the Force they couldn’t have got a tougher assignment to start their season, but a decent showing will give them hope to reach the highs of last year. Score prediction: Waratahs by 10. Man to watch: Former NZ Warriors NRL player Sam Lousi is on the bench for the Tahs, his transition to the 15-man game will be interesting.
The Highlanders get the week off to do a bit of film-work on their opponents. So there’s everything you need to know about round one of Super Rugby 2015. Sorry this column is a bit on the long side, but there was plenty of information I needed to get through. Knowing my luck with predictions, it’ll all go pear-shaped and the my Monday review will be full of apologies. Let us know what you think will happen.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Jamie Wall, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.