Super Rugby Preview

Waratahs lifting the 2014 Super Rugby title, but can they repeat their success?
Waratahs lifting the 2014 Super Rugby title, but can they repeat their success?

The 2015 edition of Super Rugby is just around the corner, kicking off in Christchurch on February 13th, so we’ve previewed the upcoming tournament and made our best predictions as to who will be in the mix at the business end of the season.

Can the Waratahs repeat? Will the Crusaders win their eighth title? Or can the South African sides avenge a disappointing 2014? Read on and find out.

Title Contenders

NSW Waratahs
Major arrivals – Sam Lousi (New Zealand Warriors, NRL)
Major departures – Alofa Alofa (La Rochelle), Cam Crawford (Rebels), Kane Douglas (Leinster)
Last year’s champions, the Waratahs face a tough task to retain their title, but if they can pull it off, they would become the first Australian side to do so, and would also join the Brumbies as the only Australian side to win multiple championships. It remains to be seen the effect Michael Cheika splitting his time between the ‘Tahs and the Wallabies will have on the team, but the loss of Kane Douglas in the engine room will certainly be keenly felt, especially at the set-piece. League convert Sam Lousi is an unknown and likely developmental prospect in Union, but could help fill the void left by Douglas, especially later in the season.
Their depth in the back three has also been weakened with the departures of Alofa Alofa and Cam Crawford, but the core of a very successful side remains. As long as Bernard Foley can continue to create space and opportunities for Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau, the ‘Tahs should be in the playoff mix again this season.  
Predicted finish - 4th

Major arrivals – Robbie Fruean (Chiefs), Jone Macilai (Northland), Ged Robinson (Highlanders)
Major departures – Corey Flynn (Toulouse), Zac Guildford (Clermont), George Whitelock (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Perennially the bride and never the bridesmaid throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s, things have changed somewhat since then, with the Crusaders going without a trophy since they last won the competition in 2008. Playoff losses in each of the subsequent years would be the heady dreams of many Super Rugby sides, but not the Crusaders, who have set different standards over the years.
The Canterbury-based franchise bounced back from a slow start last season to make it all the way to final last season and that’s a huge endorsement of Todd Blackadder’s abilities as a coach. The Crusaders squad remains largely intact from last season, but with the likes of Dan Carter, Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read to be managed through to the Rugby World Cup, they could struggle to achieve a favourable playoff seed.
Predicted finish – 5th

Major arrivalsMouritz Botha, Matt Stevens (both Saracens)
Major departures – Anton Bresler (Edinburgh), Keegan Daniel (Kubota Spears), Jean Deysel (Toyota Verblitz)
The Sharks raced to the top of the South African conference last season with good early season form, and then did just enough to keep the spot, despite their form tailing off in the later rounds of the tournament. The side from Durban cannot afford to do similarly this season, with the Bulls looking like much more of a threat, and will also need to improve their ability to score tries.
The arrival of new coach Gary Gold should help turn the Sharks into a more lethal attacking force, as will avoiding the injuries they endured last season. The all-Springbok front row of Tendai Mtawawira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis, as well as the 10-12 combination of Patrick Lambie and François Steyn, will likely dictate how successful the 2015 campaign is for the Sharks.
Predicted finish – 3rd

Major arrivals – Damian McKenzie (Waikato), Seta Tamanivalum (Taranaki), Sonny Bill Williams (Sydney Roosters, NRL)
Major departuresGareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Mahonri Schwalger (retired), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Harlequins)
Despite losing the likes of Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Gareth Anscombe and Mils Muliaina in the offseason, the Chiefs remain one of the most dangerous sides in Super Rugby. The high-profile addition of Sonny Bill Williams has drawn the headlines, but in Seta Tamanivalu and Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs’ back line has been bolstered by two of the brightest prospects in New Zealand rugby.
The likes of Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna and Sam Cane in the pack are all improved players on where they were at this time last year and although the Chiefs’ large turnover in playing personnel might affect them in the early rounds, expect them to come on strong after, much in the same fashion the Crusaders did last year.
Predicted finish - 1st and Champions

Major arrivals – James Dargaville (Sydney Stars), Les Makin, Lausii Taliauli (both University of Canberra)
Major departures – Pat McCabe (retired), Ben Mowen (Montpellier), Ruaidhri Murphy (Ulster)
The Brumbies made the playoffs last year, despite losing two of their most influential players, Stephen Moore and David Pocock, to season-ending injuries. The talent is there for the Brumbies to add to their two Super Rugby titles, but they do not have the depth of some of the other sides in the competition and will need their prominent players to stay healthy throughout.
Their set-piece is as strong as you’ll find in the Australian conference and the trio of Matt Toomua, Christian Lealiifano and Tevita Kuridrani will punish teams if given the ball on the front foot. Coach Stephen Larkham made big strides with the Brumbies’ playing style last season and assuming they can avoid the injuries they suffered through that campaign, they could well return to the top of the Australian conference this season.
Predicted finish - 2nd and Runners-Up

Dark Horses

Major arrivals - Lappies Labuschagné, Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss (all Cheetahs)
Major departures – Sampie Mastriet (Lions), Jono Ross (Stade Français), Paul Willemse (Grenoble)
The Bulls were just a win away from making the playoffs last season and given the additions they have made since, they could well be pushing for higher honours this season. The South African conference was disappointing in general last season, but as Larkham did with the Brumbies, the Bulls took significant strides forward under Frans Ludeke.
The front row pairing of Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane arrive in Pretoria, bolstering an already formidable tight five, whilst the development of young stars like Handré Pollard, Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel makes the back line look like a more lethal outfit than the one which squandered chance after chance at Loftus Versveld last year.
Predicted finish – 6th

Major arrivals – Vince Aso (Auckland), Ma’a Nonu (Blues), Jason Woodward (Rebels)
Major departures – Jack Lam (Bristol), Alapati Leiua (Wasps), Andre Taylor (Kintetsu Liners)
Capable of beating anyone on their day, the biggest criticism of the ‘Canes is that the struggle to perform at that level for a prolonged period. They were pipped to the final playoff spot by the Highlanders last season, missing out by just a solitary point, thanks to their inconsistent form.
Alapati Leiua’s departure has been mitigated somewhat by the arrival of Ma’a Nonu, who joins Beauden Barrett, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith and Julian Savea in a star-studded back line. The retention of their first-choice and mobile tight five has also been key for new coach Chris Boyd, as they compliment the free-flowing style of the ‘Canes extremely well. If they can sneak into the playoffs, the ‘Canes could trouble anyone.
Predicted finish – 7th
Best of the Rest

Major arrivals – Vincent Koch (Pumas), Bongi Mbonambi (Bulls)
Major departures – Gio Aplon (Grenoble), Pat Cilliers (Montpellier), Deon Fourie (Lyon)
The Stormers are a very good team, but they lack the difference-makers in the half-backs that are almost a prerequisite of Super Rugby. Without the direction provided by quality players at these positions, especially in a tournament as free-flowing as Super Rugby, the Stormers can look blunt in attack.
Their pack is crammed full of veteran experience and exciting potential and Cheslin Kolbe and Damian de Allende offer an attacking threat out wide, but without both Nic Groom and Demetri Catrakilis finding another gear this year, it’s tough to see the Stormers making waves in the top half of the table.
Predicted finish – 8th

Major arrivals – Daniel Bowden (Leicester Tigers), Jimmy Cowan (Gloucester), Joe Edwards (Auckland)
Major departures – Tom Donnelly (Montpellier), Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes), Piri Weepu (London Welsh)
There’s plenty of talent in Auckland, but words such as ‘consistency’ and ‘leadership’ have seemed like dirty words for the Blues over the last few years. The likes of Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu and Tom Donnelly all moved on this offseason and Sir John Kirwan will be keen to see younger team members such as Simon Hickey, Patrick Tuipulotu, Steven Luatua and Charles Piutau assume added responsibility in their absence.
 With versatile back George Moala found guilty of assault with intent to injure following an altercation at an Auckland nightclub earlier this month and the club also terminating Peter Saili’s contract to allow him to head to France, the Blues’ season has got off to a very inauspicious start.
Predicted finish – 9th
Queensland Reds
Major arrivals – Karmichael Hunt (Gold Coast FC, AFL), James O’Connor (Toulon), Adam Thomson (Canon Eagles)
Major departures – Rod Davies (Biarritz), Mike Harris, Dom Shipperley (both Rebels)
The arrival to Union of Karmichael Hunt has Reds fans excited, not to mention the return to Australia of James O’Connor, but before the back line can click into gear, the Reds’ pack needs to improve on a poor showing last season, whilst the half-back pairing of Will Genia and Quade Cooper need to rediscover their long-lost chemistry and form.
The arrival of Adam Thomson bolsters an underrated back row, but the newly-appointed captain James Slipper needs to ensure the tight five fulfil their end of bargain, or else the Reds will once again fall into obscurity as they did in 2014. If both the Force and Rebels continue to take positive steps forward as they did last season, it’s not inconceivable that the Reds could finish bottom of the Australian conference.
Predicted finish – 10th    

Wooden Spoon Candidates

Major arrivals – JP du Plessis (Montpellier), Sergeal Petersen (East Province Kings), Joe Pietersen (Biarritz)
Major departures – Johan Goosen (Racing Métro), Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss (both Bulls)
At this point last year, the Cheetahs would have been among the ‘Dark Horses’ for the competition, but a lot has changed for the Free State side over the last 12 months, very little of which has been good. As mentioned before, the front row duo of Strauss and Nyakane are not just gone, but to one of the Cheetahs’ biggest rivals, whilst Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Johan Goosen and Hennie Daniller have all also sought pastures new.
The back row is still formidable with Oupa Mohojé, Heinrich Brüssow and Boom Prinsloo an effective trio, whilst the arrival of Sergeal Peterson completes a dangerous back three with Cornal Hendricks and Willie le Roux, but it’s a big ask for those players to mask the Cheetahs’ lack of talent elsewhere in the squad.
Predicted finish – 12th

Major arrivals – Sampie Mastriet (Bulls), Howard Mnisi (Cheetahs)
Major departures – Chrysander Botha (Exeter Chiefs), Willie Britz (Lions), Franco van der Merwe (Ulster)
If you had offered the Lions a finish above the Reds and Cheetahs in their first season back in Super Rugby, they would likely have bitten your hand off. It was an impressive campaign for the men from Johannesburg and they will need more of the same this season.
A talented and surprisingly deep pack is their biggest asset and whilst the half-back pairing of Faf de Klerk and Marnitz Boshoff may not set too many Super Rugby games alight this season, their understanding and chemistry will help the Lions win games, just as it did last season.
Predicted finish - 14th

Major arrivals – Ash Dixon (Hurricanes), Josh Hohneck (Chiefs), Mark Reddish (Hurricanes)
Major departures – Jarrad Hoeata (Cardiff Blues), Chris King (Montpellier), Brad Thorn (Leicester Tigers)
It was a tough call relegating the Highlanders to ‘Wooden Spoon Candidates’, particularly after they made the playoffs last season, but the losses to their tight five have been substantial. Chris King, Ged Robinson, Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn are all gone and although solid replacements have been found from the reserves of other New Zealand Super Rugby teams, there is definitely a lack of quality within the unit.
The back line still boasts game-changers in Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith, but whether or not the Highlanders’ pack can provide them the platform they need remains to be seen. The Highlanders have some good building blocks going forward, but 2015 could feel like a step backwards for Jamie Joseph’s men.  
Predicted finish – 11th

Western Force
Major arrivals – Steve Mafi (Leicester Tigers), Albert Nikoro (Blues), Akihito Yamada (Panasonic Wild Knights)
Major departures – Kieran Longbottom (Saracens), Hugh McMeniman (Honda Heat), Chris Tuatara-Morrison (Castres)
Like the Highlanders, the Force were a real surprise package last season and though they fell just short of the playoffs, you can guarantee no team will be taking them lightly this season. That, though, could be their biggest problem this year. Teams were frequently guilty of resting players against the Force in 2014, also often looking for the bonus point before they had even secured the win, and as such, came unstuck against the side from Perth.
That advantage is gone now, as is influential prop Kieran Longbottom, and though the Force should continue to make the nib Stadium a tough place to visit, they lack the quality in key positions to push on from last season and make the playoffs in 2015.
Predicted finish – 13th

Melbourne Rebels
Major arrivals – Cam Crawford (Waratahs), Mike Harris (Reds), Radike Samo (Kintetsu Liners)
Major departures – Lachlan Mitchell (retired), Hugh Pyle (Stade Français), Jason Woodward (Hurricanes)
There were moments of real promise in 2014 for the Rebels, but ultimately they finished at the foot of the Super Rugby table, with just four wins from their 16 games. Having lost Jason Woodward and Lalakai Foketi this offseason, the Rebels have raided the Reds, bringing in Mike Harris, Dom Shipperly and Jonah Placid to bolster their back line, whilst former Red Radike Samo joins from Japan and adds some much-needed muscle to their pack.
The Force showed last year that you don’t need a team littered with stars to be successful in Super Rugby, but at the same time, the Rebels are playing catch up with the rest of Super Rugby in terms of talent on their roster and as things stand right now, they’re a long way behind.
Predicted finish – 15th