The wait is almost over rugby fans. After nearly a quarter of a year of only European Rugby to keep us entertained, we can now look forward to what is being touted as the best Super Rugby season to date.
Some of the tournaments stalwarts have moved on - as is customary after a World Cup year – but there’s a whole host of exciting young talented ready to take up their mantles. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Africa where the likes of Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, the brothers du Plessis, and Willem Alberts have all moved to foreign shores. There is a plethora of exciting young gems who will be using this year’s Super Rugby competition as an audition to fill those legends green and gold jersey’s.
As a South African rugby supporter, it’s rather refreshing to see some new blood taking up coaching positions as well. The likes of Nollis Marais (Bulls), Gary Gold (Sharks), Robbie Fleck (Stormers), and Franco Smith (Cheetahs) will all get their first taste of being at the helm for a full Super Rugby side. All four men have pledged to get their charges playing an attacking brand of rugby this term.
This year will not only see a mentality switch from the South African sides, but also two new foreign teams, who are sure to bring their own style of play to the party.
There have been quite a few changes to the Super Rugby format this year with an extra conference added, a new fixtures format, three more sides, new bonus point systems, and some rule changes - one of which, will allow teams to kick for touch and set a lineout from a penalty that has been awarded after the half-time or full-time whistle has blown.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling from yours truly, let’s now move onto Friday’s fixtures.
Blues v Highlanders | Friday 26 February | Eden Park | 08:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Blues 9/10 | Draw 20/1 | Highlanders 9/10
The opening game of this year’s tournament will see the Auckland Blues host defending champions, the Otago Highlanders. Newly installed Blues coach Tana Umaga will bring a vastly different approach to that of his predecessor, John Kirwin. His squad mainly consist of upcoming youngsters who impressed in last year’s ITM Cup. There a few veterans in the mix as well with the likes of Jerome Kaino, George Moala, and Rene Ranger likely to provide cool heads for the young guns to fall back on.
Onto the Highlanders now, and let me just start with saying how great their achievement was last year. While English Premier league side Leicester’s rise to the pinnacle of English football has been hailed as the fairy tale story of the decade, I still think the Highlanders achievement outranks there’s – especially when you consider the limited budget the Otago side was operating on.
The Highlanders were almost forced to declare insolvency a few years back, which meant they struggled to procure any world class talent. But instead of moaning about how unfair the world is and how Otago has received less financial support from the New Zealand Rugby Union than the likes of the Canterbury, they simply decided to dig in and focus on developing their local youngsters as well as acquiring players who were deemed surplus to requirement at other clubs. The plan worked a treat as last year’s title-winning season bears testament to.
With both sides playing a traditional brand of New Zealand rugby, this game has the hallmarks of an absolute classic. Sadly, though, there are some big names missing for both sides. Blues skipper Jerome Kaino will miss the match through suspension – the bruising loose forward lost his cool at a maul in a warm-up game against the Chiefs and was handed a one-week suspension for throwing a punch. Tana Umaga has also decided not to start Kaino’s fellow loose forward Akira Ioane. The talented youngster will play off the bench.
The Highlanders will be will be without utility back Marty ‘ The Barracuda’ Banks and lock Mark Reddish. While the former's absence shouldn’t affect the side too much, as there are numerous backline options for Jamie Josephs to choose from, the latter's absence may be sorely felt by the Highlanders. Reddish was brilliant for them at lineout time last year and lock/flank Joe Wheeler will have some massive boots to fill this weekend when he comes in for the influential Reddish this weekend.
Verdict: Highlanders 9/10
The Blues will have a good season make no bones about it, but I think they’re destined to start the year off with a loss to this extremely talented Highlanders outfit.
Brumbies v Hurricanes | Friday 26 February | Gio Stadium | 10:45
To Win (80 Mins)
Brumbies 7/10 | Draw 20/1 | Hurricanes 12/10
Brumbies (-2.5) 9/10 | Hurricanes (+2.5) 9/10
Friday’s headline game will see last year’s runners-up take on the ever competitive Brumbies. The hosts are probably still trying to figure out how they didn’t win last year’s title, while Steven Larkham’s men are probably wondering what they did to the tournament organisers to have their first fixture away from home against such a talented side.
Both sides have lost some of their big names in the offseason, with Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Ray Lee-Lo, Chris Smylie, and Jeremy Thrush all having left Wellington. While the Brumbies exodus included, Aussie scrumhalf Nic White, fullback Jessie Mogg, and South African-born prop JP Smith.
Chris Boyd has been able to announce virtually his best starting XV’s this week. The only absentee for the hosts will be James Martial who is on paternity leave. On the Brumbies side of things, Steven Larkham is playing his cards close to his chest. The delay of his team announcement may be down to the massive decisions he will have to make in regards to who he fields in his starting back row. David Pocock will more than likely start on the flank, while Scott Fardy, Michael Wells, and Jordan Smiler will all be contenders for the other spot on the side of the scum. Jarrad Butler and Ita Vaea are Larkham’s two options for the eighthman berth.
Verdict: Hurricanes 12/10
It’s probably the toughest game to call this week and I wouldn’t label this one as a banker by any stretch of the imagination, but my gut is telling me to go with the away side here.
Cheetahs v Jaguares | Friday 26 February | Toyota Stadium | 19:10
To Win (80 Mins)
Cheetahs 27/20 | Draw 20/1 | Jaguares 6/10
Cheetahs (+3.5) 9/10 | Jaguares (-3.5) 9/10
The first game to be played on South African shores this season will see the Free State Cheetahs take on newcomers, the Jaguares. The Free Staters have lost some of their stalwarts during the offseason, with Willie Le Roux and Coenie Oosthuizen switching allegiances to the Sharks, while Heinrich Brussouw has gone to Japan to continue his career.
This is unchartered territory for both sides. The Jags are yet to play a Super Rugby game while the Free Staters have a new coach and a plethora of new players. The hosts will look to the likes of Springbok Lood De Jaeger and veteran Super Rugby campaigners, Boom Prinsloo and Hilton Lobberts to make an impact this Friday evening.
The Argentines were extremely impressive during their preseason. Not only did the run the Stormers close in Cape Town but they managed to give a Lions second string a 49-28 hiding at the Wits Stadium last Friday. They have a whole host of seasoned Argentine internationals in their squad who have competed against the best in the business during the last three Rugby Championships and the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The men from South America are brilliant at the set piece but could face a stiff test at lineout time with Lood De Jaeger calling the shots for the Free Staters. This is going to be a brutal affair, but not your traditional trench warfare sort of stuff. There will be some massive hits, hotly contested scrums and lineouts, but there will also be some exciting running rugby for fans to feast upon.
Verdict: Jaguares (-3.5)
With both teams willing to run the ball from deep this could prove to be a rather high–scoring affair. My money is on the newcomers getting their first-ever Super Rugby win on Friday. They should also be able to clear what is a rather small margin.