With the end of the international test window upon us, the eyes of rugby fans are turning, albeit reluctantly, to Super Rugby.
If ever a tournament was given a hard time, then this is surely it. But while it might seem something of an anti-climax after watching top level international action, there are some compelling reasons you should give it your attention.
Some competitive action in New Zealand
Of course, New Zealanders are passionate about the All Blacks. But let’s be honest, their annihilation of France in the last series lacked any real competitive drama. The All Blacks were never going to be challenged, and the bookmakers knew it as well as the fans, who were more likely to spend their money at the new casinos 2018 has produced than bet on their favourite sport.
However, Super Rugby will bring a change to that. There will be four top quality New Zealand teams duking it out for a place in the finals, in the shape of the Hurricanes, the Chiefs, the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Most importantly for New Zealanders, the result will not be a foregone conclusion.
Balm for Australia
Across the water in Australia, it is very much the opposite effect. Having suffered a series loss to Ireland, Aussie fans will be glad to have something to cheer about – at least for a while. The Australian conference is not the strongest, but the Waratahs are a match for anyone on their day, and the Rebels have a realistic chance of making the final eight, and could even be rewarded with a home fixture in the quarter finals.
Expect the unexpected
The return to Super Rugby action after the internationals will, to a certain extent be tantamount to hitting the reset button. It’s not just the fact that so much time has elapsed during the international break, but many of the lineups will have enforced changes due to injuries.
The Waratahs will be without captain Michael Hooper, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, while, flanker Ardie Savea is missing from the Hurricanes and is expected to be out for three weeks with an ankle injury. This adds to existing injury woes for the Hurricanes, as both Vaea Fifita and Beauden Barrett are doubtful following concussions.
These are just a few of the battle scars that the international stars have brought back from their travels. Form and momentum in the run up to the break is practically meaningless now. Just look at what happened in 2016. The Chiefs seemed unbeatable in the run up to the break, with Aaron Cruden leading the way. But when hostilities recommenced, Cruden was unavailable and the Chiefs faded away, while the Hurricanes, who had been almost out of the running, appeared from nowhere to clinch their maiden title.
In other words, this is a tournament where you genuinely cannot predict what’s going to happen.
So what’s going to happen?
Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. Which are the teams from each conference with the best prospects as we head into the final phase?