An electrifying dose of Super Rugby action heads our way with a thrilling round of clashes lined up to finally wake the Southern Hemisphere from its off-season slumber. This year serves as the last opportunity to enjoy the competition in its current format, with next year’s title race increasing to eighteen sides in a new four-conference system that will include teams from Argentina and Japan. The 2015 Super Rugby shenanigans will certainly prove trickier than usual for the punters to predict; with the World Cup just around the corner expect many of the competition’s top players to spend most of the season wrapped in cotton wool at the instruction of their respective unions. Reigning champions the Waratahs predictably start off alongside Kiwi powerhouses the Crusaders and Chiefs as opening favourites, with Hollywood offering 9/2 for any of them to lift the cup. The Sharks are the pick of the South African contingent at 7/1.
Crusaders vs Rebels | Friday 13 February | AMI Stadium, Christchurch | 08:35
The competition kicks off in Christchurch this week with the Rebels taking on Super Rugby aristocrats the Crusaders.
To Win (80mins)
Crusaders (-13.5) 9/10
Rebels (+13.5) 9/10
The Crusaders will be hoping to avoid their trademark turbulence in the opening rounds of this competition. Their poor performances in their three pre-season clashes may just have provided the fire for their bellies that has previously only shown up a few rounds into the action. Coach Todd Blackadder’s prospects of shaking the ‘chokers’ tag (which his side earned from failing to claim the title since 2008 despite featuring in the playoffs every subsequent year) have taken a bit of a knock with injuries to several of his stand-out players including Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Sam Whitelock. The Rebels had a more promising run in the pre-season fixtures, delivering two powerful performances against the Reds and Highlanders, but the intensity will naturally be of a much higher level when playing for points and we will have to wait until Friday to know just how much of a threat the lads from Melbourne pose this season. They have fared relatively well against the Crusaders in previous encounters and even stole a shock victory over them back in 2012.
VERDICT: Rebels (+13.5) 9/10
If this was Round Five or Six I would call a resounding Crusaders victory, but the Crusaders have only won one of their last four opening round fixtures and that was a 18-19 victory over the Blues in Auckland back in 2012. Even so, I fancy the Crusaders to start off with a win this year but I don’t think they’ll manage the handicap.
Brumbies vs Reds | Friday 13 February | Canberra Stadium | 10:40
These two Aussie adversaries kick their campaigns off in the same way they did last season, with a colossal clash in Canberra.
To Win (80mins)
Brumbies (-6.5) 8/10
Reds (+6.5) 1/1
The Brumbies were one of the more consistent sides last season, finishing fourth on the consolidated table and taking down a formidable Chiefs side in the qualifiers before succumbing to a wilful Waratahs outfit in the semi-finals. But things haven’t been all that promising since. The Vikings failed to finish in the top four of the NRC and the Brumbies hardly impressed in their two pre-season clashes, going down 31-21 to the Force and then throwing away a three-try lead over the Highlanders to suffer a 24-19 defeat in Wagga Wagga. David Pocock has been named as skipper for the season, replacing Ben Mowen who has relocated to Europe. The Reds had a dismal time in this competition last season, managing just five wins and finishing in 13th place. But their performance against the Crusaders in last week’s friendly, which the Queenslanders took 35-12, indicates that the Reds are going to be a far greater threat this year. They will be without pugnacious pivot Quade Cooper and it is still uncertain as to who will take over as playmaker, with Karmichael Hunt and the disdainful James O’Connor the most likely candidates.
VERDICT: Reds (+6.5) 1/1
A tough one to call but I am expecting good things from the Reds this season so I’d back them to claim the win in the Capital this week, but I’d suggest using the handicap for a bit of insurance.
Lions vs Hurricanes | Friday 13 February | Ellis Park | 19:10
A rejuvenated Lions side will look to extend a similar South African welcome to that afforded to the Highlanders in the opening rounds of last season.
To Win (80mins)
Despite their twelfth place finish in last year’s tournament the Lions delivered probably their strongest Super Rugby display to date, and from there they went on to dominate most of the Currie Cup season and only narrowly missed out on the silverware after going down 19-16 to Western Province in the final. The Lions will kick off this season with most of the players that helped make their domestic campaign so successful last season and they could surprise a few of the bigger sides over the next few months. The Hurricanes got off to horrid start to 2014’s competition, losing their first three clashes, two of those in South Africa against the Sharks and Stormers. They have looked promising in their two warm-up games this year, taking down the Crusaders 41-31 in Eketahuna and narrowly missing out against the Blues 32-29 in North Harbour. They field the stronger side on paper for Friday’s Highveld clash, with Ben Franks, Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Conrad Smith all named in the run on side.
VERDICT: Lions 8/10
The Lions have made tremendous strides in the past year and have a decent shot at making their first Super Rugby playoffs since 2001. The Hurricanes have the talent to take this one, but winning in South Africa in the first game of the season is probably just beyond their reach.
Blues vs Chiefs | Saturday 14 February | Eden Park | 08:35
The very first Kiwi derby of the season takes place in Auckland this Saturday with the Chiefs looking to extend their unbeaten run against the Blues in this competition to eight in a row.
To Win (80mins)
Blues (+1.5) 9/10
Chiefs (-1.5) 9/10
Coach Sir John Kirwan will be looking to improve on last season’s performance in which the Blues battled with consistency, finishing tenth on the consolidated table and last in the fiercely contested New Zealand conference. But he has his work cut out for him following the paralysing player exodus the Blues have suffered over the past few months that has cost him the services of several stars including Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu and Benji Marshall. Jerome Kaino will skipper the side this week while last year’s captain Luke Braid is set to make a return to action off the bench following his double shoulder reconstruction. The Chiefs looked less convincing last season than previous years, but they nonetheless managed to book a seat in the playoffs despite winning just eight of their sixteen clashes. Their dreams of pulling of a historic treble following title wins in 2012 and 2013 were not long lived as the Brumbies squeezed out a 32-30 victory to deny the Chiefs a spot in the semis. I feel the Chiefs have the stronger side going into this clash and their attack will certainly be boosted by the return of jack-of-all-sports Sonny Bill Williams, who teams up with Charlie Ngatai in the midfield.
VERDICT: Chiefs 8/10
The Blues haven’t been able to trouble the Chiefs since back in 2011 when they pinched a narrow 13-16 victory in Hamilton, so I can’t see them being able to tame the incommodious Chiefs backline this Saturday with their considerably depleted squad.
Sharks vs Cheetahs | Saturday 14 February | Kings Park | 17:05
The Cheetahs will be hoping to pull off a repeat of their indecorous antics down in Durban circa April 2012 that resulted in 6-12 hit-and-run victory for the visitors.
To Win (80mins)
Sharks (-9.5) 8/10
Cheetahs (+9.5) 1/1
The Sharks were the only South African side to advance through to the playoffs last season finishing in third on the consolidated table, but found themselves completely outclassed in the semi-finals against a rejuvenated Crusaders side that managed to bulldoze over the try-line five times in their 38-6 victory. The Sharks suffered a similar fate in the domestic competition where they wrapped up the regular season in third place, but were once again caught with their pants around their ankles in the semis, going down in horrific fashion 50-20 to the Lions. They start the season without Ryan Kankowski, JP Pietersen and Frans Steyn as the trio complete their club commitments in Japan, while several other stars including Willem Alberts, Paul Jordaan and Stephan Lewies will miss the opening clash due to injury. The Cheetahs will be looking to improve on a poor 2014 that saw them finish fourteenth in the Super Rugby competition and fail to advance through to the playoffs in the Currie Cup. They will be without bruiser Heinrich Brussow and centre Johann Sadie this week, and have lost skipper Adriaan Strauss to the Bulls. Still, there are a few mentionable names in the beleaguered Cheetahs side, such as Springbok sensation Willie le Roux who starts at fullback and powerhouse Coenie Oosthuizen, who joins Torsten van Jaarsveld and Danie Mienie in the front row.
VERDICT: Cheetahs (+9.5) 1/1
The Sharks are a strong side at home, but without the use of several key players and the Cheetahs fielding try-machine Willie le Roux I feel the visitors should, at the very least, come within a few points of victory.
Bulls vs Stormers | Saturday 14 February | Loftus Versfeld | 19:10
This brutal battle between the Bulls and Stormers should give us a fair indication of how things are going to shape up in the South African conference this season.
To Win (80mins)
Bulls (-4.5) 9/10
Stormers (+4.5) 9/10
Three-time title holders the Bulls had a forgettable 2014 in both the Super Rugby and Currie Cup, but things could prove far more interesting for their fans this season as the Pretoria based side attempts to roll out a more expansive game plan this season, finally moving away from their trademark style that comprised of suffocating their opponents and boring the spectators. An exciting side takes to the field this week with Francois Hougaard starting on the wing, youngster Handre Pollard at flyhalf and Adriaan Strauss at hooker. The Stormers have missed out on the playoffs for the last two seasons, but if their phenomenal performance in last year’s Currie Cup is anything to go on we could see the Cape Town side returning to the top of the table again soon. But to do that they will certainly need to get off to a considerably stronger start than they did last year where they managed just a single victory from their first seven clashes.
VERDICT: Bulls 5/10
The lads from the Cape have seemingly perfected the art of toppling their Highveld adversaries, smashing the Bulls three times on their way to claiming the Currie Cup last season. But the Bulls are a defiant lot in front of their Loftus loyals and they have thrown together a strong side for their opening game. Should be a tight one but the Bulls should have enough to take it by a nose.
Waratahs vs Force | Sunday 15 February | Allianz Stadium | 07:05
The Waratahs kick off their title defence with a Sunday showdown against the Western Force.
To Win (80mins)
Waratahs (-12.5) 9/10
Force (+12.5) 9/10
The Waratahs are fortunate enough to start the season with a full strength side skippered by the returning Dave Dennis. Spoilt for choice on attack, the ‘Tahs have named a run on side that boasts several Wallaby regulars including Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Burley winger Taqele Naiyaravoro will pick up his first start for the Waratahs following some powerful performances in the pre-season clashes, and lock Sam Lousi is set to make his Super rugby debut off the bench. The Force pulled off a record nine victories in last year’s competition and only just missed out on a spot in the playoffs. But after nine years in the Super Rugby competition the Force are yet to claim a victory in the opening round and an identical Round 1 fixture last year saw the Waratahs claim a compelling 43-21 victory at the same ground. To lower the Force’s chances of causing an upset this week even further, they will be without influential skipper Matt Hodgson and philosopher Nick Cummins, both recovering from injuries.
VERDICT: Waratahs (-12.5) 9/10
The Waratahs have managed to name a starting side that, bar a new-look second row, is a carbon copy of the side that ran on in last year’s title clinching final against the Crusaders. They are hardly going to trip up at home to the Force in the opening round.