The opening round of the revamped Super Rugby tournament continues this Saturday with six enthralling fixtures set to take place. The day’s action opens with the new boys from Japan hosting the Lions. That game is followed by five derby matches, the first of which sees the Crusaders take on the Chiefs at AMI stadium.
We then make the trip across the Tasman, for two of the other derbies, with the Waratahs taking on the Reds and the Force hosting the Rebels. It’s off to the republic after that, with the Sharks travelling to Port Elizebeth to take on the Kings, while the round closes out with the Stormers taking on the Bulls in South Africa's feistiest rugby derby.
Rugby punters will be on cloud nine this Saturday with an abundance of oval-balled action on the go. Get those beers cooled and those bets on!
Sunwolves v Lions | Saturday 27 February | Chichibu Stadium | 06:15
To Win (80 Mins)
Sunwolves 3/1 | Draw 28/1 | Lions 1/4
Sunwolves (+10.5) 9/10 | Lions (-10.5) 9/10
While I’m not a huge fan of waking up before six o'clock on the weekends, I’m honestly going to be like a kid on Christmas Morning come the wee hours of Saturday. I’ve got a few reasons for being so excited about this one. Firstly, I really want to see Riaan Viljoen try and communicate with his fellow backs in Japenese. Secondly, I really want to see how this Lions side goes as I’ve tipped them to make the knockout phase of the tournament. And finally, I think there’s a ton of value backing the Lions to clear what is an extremely kind handicap.
The boys from Joburg have an exceedingly talented squad who are coming off the back of a Currie Cup title winning season. Their opponents on the other hand, have a bit of a slapdash look about them. Sure, they’ve got a few Super Rugby vets in the form of former Reds man Ed Quirk, Hooker Shota Hoorie who played a few games for the Rebels, one time Shark Riaan Viljoen, and Hurricanes old boy Tusi Piesi, but the rest of their squad compromises of mainly rookie Japenese internationals. They were also without head coach Mark Hammett for the most part of their build up to this game. The former All Black was granted compassionate leave due to the death of his mother last week.
There’s not much point in going through the Sunwolves matchday 23 as most of them are unknown to the South African public. The aforementioned Super Rugby veterans will all start, however. So at least, they’ll have some experience on the field.
On the Lions side of things, Johan Ackerman has opted to leave talented young flyhalf Marnitz Bosman out of the touring squad, so the mercurial Elton Jantjies will be the incumbent ten for the tour. He will be partnered in the half back pairing by Springbok hopeful Faf De Klerk while Howard Mnisi is likely to line up outside Jantjies for this one. Warren Whitely will skipper the side and should be joined in the back row by the industrious Jaco Kriel.
Verdict: Lions (-10.5)
You could put another 20 points on this handicap and I’d still throw a hundred rand on the Lions clearing it.
Crusaders v Chiefs | AMI Stadium | Saturday 27 February | 08:35
To Win (80 Mins)
Crusaders 7/10 | Draw 20/1 | Chiefs 12/10
Crusaders (-2.5) 9/10 | Chiefs (+2.5) 9/10
There will be no love lost this Saturday when the Canterbury Crusaders lock horns with the Waikato Chiefs. Both teams endured sub-par campaigns last year and they will be going all out to prove that they’ll be forces to reckon with this term.
The McCaw/Carter era came to a close last year, and many expect the Crusaders to struggle without their two talismanic forces. This may turn out to be a load of rhetoric being spewed by lazy pundits looking to elicit a few more clicks on the old internet, however. I remember similar remarks being made when Andrew Merthens was coming to the twilight of his career. And what happened then? A youngster named Dan Carter burst through the Saders youth ranks and ultimately forced Mertens out of the side.
The man who will be charged with filling Carter’s boots is young gun Richie Mo’unga. You may actually remember Mo’unga from Canterbury’s 2014 ITM Cup campaign where he was used as both a fullback and ten. The talented youngster is going to have a heap of pressure plied on him come kick off on Saturday, with Chiefs flanker Sam Cane likely to target the Crusaders pivot in a bid to shut down the supply line to Mo’unga’s outside backs.
The Chiefs have also lost some of their stalwarts but not to retirement or injury like their counterparts, but rather to the dream of winning an Olympic medal. Sonny-Bill Williams and Liam Messam will not feature for the Waikato franchise this term due to their commitments with the New Zealand Sevens squad, while scrumhalf Augustine Pulu will only play half the season before he jets off with Gordon Tietjens’ Sevens squad. Fret not though Chiefs fans, as there are some talented players who will cover for these men.
Charlie Ngatia will fill Williams’ large number 12 jersey, while Taleni Seu will fill the void left by Messam. Augustine Pulu was always going to play second fiddle to Tawera Kerr-Barlow, so his absence shouldn’t really weaken the Chiefs as they also have a decent backup in the form of Brad Webber. Pivot Aaron Cruden will make his return to the side after missing the majority of last year’s tournament through knee ligament damage.
Verdict: Crusaders 7/10
In all honesty, there’s not much to choose between the two sides. I’m going to go with the home team for this one purely based on the fact that they’ll have the crowd behind them.
Waratahs v Reds | Allianz Stadium | Saturday 27 February | 10:45
Waratahs 2/9 | Draw 20/1 | Reds 7/2
Waratahs (-11.5) 9/10 | Reds (+11.5) 9/10
The second derby of the day sees the ever-competitive Waratahs take on a Reds side that is in a rebuilding phase. The hosts had a fantastic campaign last year which saw them make it all the way to the semi-finals. The Reds on the other had a year to forget as they narrowly avoided the competition’s wooden spoon.
The Tahs will look at this fixture as a five-point banker. Their match day squad, which will be led by Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper, contains a lot more experience than that of their opponents. The only debutant in the New South Wales starting line will be centre David Horwitz while the Reds will have four men on debut in their matchday squad in the form of centre Henry Taefu, winger Eto Nabuli, Japenese utility back Ayumu Goromaru and lock/loose forward Ben Matijowi.
Verdict: Waratahs (-11.5) 9/10
You simply can’t field a team with that little experience against one of the best Super Rugby sides in the tournament. The Waratahs are going to walk this one and that handicap should be cleared with consummate ease.
Force v Rebels | nib Stadium | Saturday 27 February | 12:55
Force 8/10 | Draw 20/1 | Rebels 21/20
Force (-1.5) 9/10 | Rebels (+1.5) 9/10
The second Aussie derby of the day takes place at the nib Stadium where the underachieving Western Force will host a much improved Melbourne Rebels outfit. The hosts are likely to have a similar campaign to all of their previous ones, which have seen them locked in almighty battles to avoid last spot in the competition.
The Force have lost their talismanic winger/one line comedian, Nick Cummings, but they have managed to secure one of the most consistent flyhalves in the history of Super Rugby. Former Stormers pivot, Peter Grant has made the move to the West Coast of Australia and will be a key man for the Force. He joins fellow South African Marcel Brachie at the Australian franchise.
Grant won’t start this weekend, with Force coach Michael Foley selecting another new recruit, Jono Lance, as the Force’s starting flyhalf. Grant is on the bench however, so we can expect to see him get on the field as the game reaches it’s final quarter.
The Rebels are in for a much better season than their opponents for this weekend. They have a quality squad that has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two years. Their key man for this weekend - and the season, in fact - will be young loose forward Sean McMahon. The young gun was brilliant for the Rebels last term and was rightly rewarded with a spot in the Australian World Cup squad. He along with fellow loosies Jordy Reid and former All Black Adam Thompson, will form a formidable back row that is capable of dominating any team at the breakdown.
Verdict: Rebels 21/20
They may be away from home but the Rebels offer fantastic value at 21/20. It’s definitely worth sticking some cash on this one.
Kings v Sharks | Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium | Saturday 27 February | 15:05
Kings 7/2| Draw 22/1 | Sharks 1/5
Kings (+11.5) 9/10 | Sharks (-11.5) 9/10
The Kings and Sharks will go head to head at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium this Saturday. And in my opinion, the hosts are on a hiding to nothing. Their preseason has been an absolute shambles with political infighting within the Eastern Province Rugby Union – and yip, you guessed, it Cheeky Watson was the main cause of this – as well as massive financial issues hampering any attempts to galvanise the squad.
They come into this campaign with a squad that resembles a Vodacom Cup side. The only talent they really have at their disposal is line out king, Steven Sykes and flying winger Siyanda Grey. The former will lead the side this weekend while the latter is out due to a hamstring injury.
The Sharks will be looking to make up for what was a shocking 2015. They had a horrific Super rugby campaign that saw them bow out at the conference stage. They also failed to make the Currie Cup semi-finals which annoyed their supporters to no end. Things are looking a lot rosier for the coastal franchise this time around. They have a decent looking squad that has a nice blend of youth and experience to it. They will be without their newly installed skipper Pat Lambie this weekend, however.
The golden boy of Natal rugby sustained a shoulder injury in a preseason game against Toulon and looks set to miss the first three weeks of the Sharks Super Rugby campaign. Sharks coach Gary Gold will give Joe Pietersen a start at ten this week.
There are also Super Rugby debuts for the du Preez twins who join Marcel Coetzee in the back row. New recruit Willie Le Roux will make his Sharks debut this weekend as will his former Cheetahs colleague Coenie Oosthuizen.
Verdict: Sharks (-11.5) 9/10
The Kings season is likely to start with a massive defeat to the Sharks this Saturday.
Stormers v Bulls | DHL Newlands | Saturday 27 February | 17:15
Stormers 9/20 | Draw 22/1 | Bulls 18/10
Stormers (-5.5) 9/10 | Bulls (+5.5) 9/10
South Africa’s feistiest derby game will close out the opening Super Rugby round. It’s always a heated clash when the Stormers and Bulls go head to head and this one may be the tastiest of them all.
It may not turn out to be your traditional North versus South derby however, as both sides have got new management teams who are intent on implementing an attacking brand of rugby. Historically, the Bulls have been the archetypal South African side. They have traditionally kept it amongst their forwards and have looked to their flyhalves to implement a game plan that focusses on kicking for territory at every given chance.
This all changed though when Nollis Marais took charge of the franchise at the close of last year’s Super Rugby tournament. The Bulls mentor demonstrated the attacking brand of rugby he wants to be associated with the union during last year’s Currie Cup.
The Stormers also have a new man at the helm in the form of ex-centre Robbie Fleck. The former ‘Bok has little experience as a head coach but has been around the Stormers set up for quite a while now. He’s been advocating bringing the youth through this season and has proved these weren’t hollow words with his team selection for this weekend; naming youngster Robert du Preez as his starting ten and Johhny Kotze as his outside centre.
Like Fleck, Marais has also included quite a few youngsters in his starting XV. Warrick Gelant cracks the nod at 15 while fellow Springbok under-20 representatives Jesse Kriel and Jan Surffontein will play in midfield.
Verdict: Bulls (+5.5) 9/10
This one's going to be a tight affair andI do fancy the Bulls but not enough to risk them on the straight win. Back them on the +5.5 handicap at 9/10.