The 2012 Super Rugby season has quietly popped up without many people apart from the players and coaches really noticing it – but yes indeed it does start this weekend and for many rugby fans it’s just as well given it comes at the end of one of the longer off-seasons in recent times.
Here are some tips on what will happen for this season – the first Super rugby season post World Cup in which the All Blacks are actually the reigning World Champions. On paper, in means, we may avoid the post World Cup lull that has resulted in initially lower audiences and crowds in New Zealand as we saw in 2004 and 2008.
In fact with rugby and the New Zealand sporting public on a high, we could be set for one of the better starts to the season. While there hasn’t been much hype in Wellington due to the fact that the Hurricanes are on paper not going to be very good this season and because they start their season in South Africa, there has been hype elsewhere in the country including in Christchurch which hopes to host its first Super rugby game in nearly 2 years at the revamped Rugby League Park in Addington after of course missing out due to the devastating February earthquake last year.
And of course, the Highlanders will have a new home and will be the first Super rugby side to play most of their home games “indoors” thanks to their new state-of-the-art Forsyth Barr Stadium. Whether it means the Highlanders will turn into the Minnesota Vikings/Indianapolis Colts/New Orleans Saints of Super Rugby remains to be seen and one wonders if the indoor stadium could dilute Southern rugby’s traditional values of hard-nosed forward-based rugby now that weather has effectively been taken out of the equation.
As usual, the pundits are all out for the Crusaders with the Blues in 2nd place. The Crusaders again have plenty of talent and given their form last year as well as the fact they’re going to be back in Christchurch again, they must be everyone’s favourites. They have the ability to get the best out of some players who would be considered average players in other teams. Given that this competition runs for a total of 21 weeks, the next tier of players will need to stand up.
The Blues should be tough but remain as risky a pick as ever – they have All Blacks galore but just don’t quite have the consistency that the Crusaders have. Success will depend on teams winning when not at the top of their game.
The Highlanders look to have the goods to push the Crusaders and Blues after a promising first season under Jamie Joseph and subsequent signings of Andrew Hore, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison, amongst many others. However, they are experiencing a bit of a horror injury list at the moment which will test their limited depth – although given the new format of Super Rugby this might be helpful later on with those players likely to be fresher later on than their peers. Belief is another questionable element here as the Highlanders should have finished in the top 6 but missed out when they appeared to hit the wall at the end.
Which leaves us with the Chiefs and Hurricanes. Dave Rennie has done wonders with Manawatu but needs a season or two to turn the Chiefs around – forward play has never been a strength of Chiefs rugby and work needs to be done there to ensure the talent of the backs is not wasted. One thing to look out for is the development of Aaron Cruden after a star turn at the World Cup as Dan Carter’s unexpected deputy. Cruden looks well despite suffering a nasty injury in the Final against France and of course, Sonny Bill Williams.
As for the Canes, well expectation has been virtually zero with so many stars gone and Mark Hammett’s Crusaderisation well under way. They have a tough start in South Africa but at least they get that done and dusted for the rest of the season. The problem is that they have so many inexperienced players that it will take a season or two to get the team winning again – which may mean crowd numbers won’t be much better than last season’s historic franchise low.
What about the Aussies and South Africans? Well, it’s difficult to see the Reds maintaining their title challenge with Quade Cooper out till later in the season and now not so much the hot property he was prior to the World Cup. The Rebels could be the surprise team of the season with James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale now there and under the guidance of former Wallabies RWC winning coach Rod McQueen. The Waratahs should be there in the mix but don’t expect too much from the Force or Brumbies though.
As for the Saffers, they will continue to be strong and it looks like the Stormers could be the team to beat from the Republic. The Bulls will be there but one wonders how they’ll cope without now-Springboks coach Heynecke Meyer and an aging forward pack. The Sharks are a bit like the Waratahs and Blues – perennial playoff contenders and the progress of Pat Lambie will be interesting to see – he needs a big season to show that he can be the Springbok first five in June.
Another surprise package this season could be the Lions. The Currie Cup side won the title for the first time in many years under John Mitchell and it looks like things could be turning for the eternal wooden spooners. Now that the Gauteng side have figured out how to win, confidence is high and perhaps this could be the season where the Lions could challenge for a playoff spot. The same can’t be said for the Cheetahs though who could be staring at being substituted by the Southern Kings in the 2013 Super Rugby competition if they can’t lift beyond their current mediocrity.
Who are you picking to win Super Rugby 2012? Which of the Super XV will triumph?