Less than two weeks remain until the beginning of the 2015 super rugby season, a season which may be a little less competitive than usual, simply because it is a world cup year. It is also not certain what the attitude of the three Sanzar countries is going to be to the management of star international players during this tournament.
Over the past four years, there has been a good spread of winners, with the Chiefs from New Zealand winning two titles and the Australian sides, the Waratahs and the Reds sharing the other two. It is likely that once again the winner will come from the land of the All Blacks.
The Chiefs retain a solid core of forwards, among them Messam, Cane, Tameifuna, Retallick and Squire. If they can provide 50% of set piece ball to a back line which boasts Cruden, Sonny-Bill Williams, Hosea Gear, Horrell, Lowe, Marshall, Damian Mckenzie, Ngatai, Nanai-Williams and Heem, the Chiefs will be difficult to beat. Lack of depth in tight forwards is the only weakness.
Perennial challengers, the Crusaders will be in at the finish. Their forward strength is second to none and the list of McCaw, Bird, Crockett, Franks, Laulala, Funnell, Moody, Perry, Todd, Read, Romano and the two Whitelocks includes nine All Blacks. At the back they have Carter, Dagg, Fruean, Nadolo, Slade, Taylor, Heinz and the aging but still competitive, Andy Ellis. The only possible weakness lies in mid-field but whoever beats this team should be champions.
The Hurricanes have often disappointed but under a new coach and with a rapidly improving forward pack, they are challengers. There are now five All Blacks in the pack, namely Vito, Ben Franks, Thrush, Toomaga-Allen and Coles. Other talented forwards include Ardie Savea, Shields, Schwalger and Blade Thomson. At the back there is always a ton of creative talent led by the brilliant Beauden Barrett and including Perenara, Jane, Nonu, Savea, Conrad Smith, Woodward and Procter. It is to be hoped that Nonu will not prove a disruptive influence.
The Highlanders invariably play without the stars present in the other NZ sides and performed admirably last year but just do not appear to have the depth necessary to present a lasting challenge. In the backs, the Smiths, Aaron and Ben and Fekitoa will be All Blacks but that will not be sufficient. Christie, Coltman, Evans and Dixon are the best of the forwards.
As always, the Blues are great on paper but coaching and selection problems, firstly with Pat Lam and now John Kirwan, do not allow them to perform as they should. The pack, with Braid, Faumuina, Kaino, Luatua, Mealamu, Saili, Tuipulotu and Woodcock, should stand firm against anyone and there are exciting runners at the back, namely Tevita Li, Visinia, Piutau, West and Frank Halai. However, their results are likely to fall short of their potential.
In Australia, the champion Waratahs maintain a well balanced side. Dennis, Hooper, Kepu, Palu, Polota-Nau, Potgieter, Robinson, Ryan and the massive Skelton provide plenty of power, complemented at the back by the skills of Beale, Foley, Folau and Ashley-Cooper, in addition to Betham, Horne, Phipps and Naiyaravoro. Their abrasive coach seems to get the best out of them and they should be challengers.
On paper, the Reds look competitive, after a terrible season last year. There is plenty of depth at forward, with Fainga’a, Daley, Gill, Hanson, Horwill, Robinson, Schatz, Simmons, Slipper and former All Black, Adam Thomson. Cooper is injured and may miss much of the season but Genia, Fainga’a, Sautia, Frisby, Turner, bad boy James O’Connor and the fast emerging Kerevi provide creative skill at the back.
The Brumbies have Alexander, Fardy, Moore, Sio, Carter and Pocock, if he can remain uninjured, in their pack and Lealiifano, Mogg, Speight, Toomua, Tomane, White and the greatly improved Kuridrani in the backline. They could be in at the finish if lucky with injuries.
The Force, with McCalman, Hodgson, Charles and Steenkamp in the forwards and Matthewson, Godwin, Morahan, Ebersohn and the irrepressible Nick Cummins in the backs will try their best. They will do well to emulate last year’s efforts.
The Rebels, despite their spending, are unlikely to mount a strong challenge. Both the forwards, with Fainga’a, Higginbotham, Jones, McMahon, Timani and Weeks and the backs, with Burgess, Ellison, Crawford, English, Inman and Shipperley recruited from the Reds, can be competitive but lack of depth will hurt them.
The main threat from South Africa is likely to come from the Stormers, very disappointing last year, after an avalanche of injuries and the Sharks, which does not seem to be a harmonious outfit. There is a current of ill feeling in the Durban air, following the peremptory dismissals of first, John Plumtree and then John Smit’s one time buddy, now apparently out of favour, Jake White. A powerful forward pack comprising the du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, supported by Adriaanse, Alberts, Chadwick, Marcel Coetzee, Pieter-Stef du Toit, Kankowski, Mtawarira, Mtembu and the immensely talented young prop, Thomas du Toit, is the only pack outside New Zealand comparable to the Crusaders. The backs include Lambie, Jordaan, SP Marais, Mvovo, JP Pietersen, Reinach, Sithole, Francois Steyn, Swiel and Zeilinga. It is a terrific team on paper but much will depend on team spirit.
The Stormers have Carr, Elstadt, Etzebeth, Kebble, Kitshoff, Kolisi, Malherbe, Rhodes and Vermeulen in the pack but a slightly less talented backline in Catrakillis, Coleman, de Allende, de Jongh, Groom, Kolbe, Senatla, van Wyk and Taute. It is a good side but will need to enjoy better luck with injuries than they had last year.
The Lions followed a poor 2014 super rugby season with an outstanding and entertaining performance in the Currie Cup. Despite a lack of name players, coach Ackermann has produced some wonderful rugby from his players and unearthed new stars in Akker ‘angry warthog’ van der Merwe, Jaco Kriel and a trio of props, Redelinghuys, van Rooyen and Dreyer. Other useful forwards are Minnie, Coetzee, Muller, Tecklenberg and Whiteley. They look short of backline players but have Andries Coetzee, Jantjies, Mapoe, Skosan, Boshoff, de Klerk and Hollenbach. If they can find the same dominance at forward that they established in the Currie Cup, they will cause some upsets.
The Cheetahs always struggle to retain players, losing many to the wealthier provinces. At forward they have Brussow, de Jager, Mohoje and Prinsloo and at the back, Cornal Hendricks, Willie le Roux, Pretorius, Joe Pietersen, Rhule and Sadie. The lack of classy, experienced players will make it very difficult for them to make an impression.
Finally, the Bulls have begun their pre-season well but are stuck in their time honoured approach of attempting to dominate with massive forwards before releasing the ball to their speedy backs. They have no plan B and do not have the sorts of forwards to get to the breakdown quickly enough to take control of ruck and maul. A powerful pack includes Matfield, Botha, du Plessis, Greyling, Hattingh, Kruger, Labuschagne, Spies, Stegmann and Andries Strauss from the Cheetahs. There is plenty of pace in the backline, with Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Serfintein, Pollard, Ndungane, Kriel and Hougaard. They will win most of their Loftus games but may struggle to win away from home.
Semi-finalists could be the Crusaders, Chiefs, Waratahs and Sharks, with the Hurricanes an outside bet.