The 15th season of Super Rugby kicks off this weekend and six local derbies should provide the tournament with the perfect start.
Teams released thusfar
Greg Clark writes for Foxsports that all fourteen teams will be in action with the defending champs the Bulls travelling to Bloemfontein to take on the Cheetahs. Last year’s beaten finalists the Chiefs are in Durban first up and their clash with the Sharks is the only ‘non-local derby’.
Aussie fans are in for a treat when the Brumbies play the Western Force in Perth on Friday night and the Reds host the Waratahs in Brisbane on Saturday night.
Bring it on.
Blues v Hurricanes
With Eden Park undergoing a major face lift for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the Blues are playing this match across the Harbour Bridge at Albany so that might help the Hurricanes’ cause.
The Blues were guilty of underachieving last season when they finished ninth. They had some great talent, most of who are backing up again this season, but they just couldn’t put it all together.
The Hurricanes on the other hand have been semi-finalists for the past two seasons but they have fallen at the second to last hurdle both times.
This is coach Colin Cooper’s eighth and final season and the players will be desperate to send him out with a first ever Super Rugby title. Both teams have plenty of All Blacks to call on and I’m leaning towards the Blues to win a close one.
Western Force v Brumbies
ME Bank Stadium might be a new ground for the Force but will a new look backline be good enough to match their star studded opponents?
The man brought in to try to fill the gap left by Matt Giteau’s return to the Brumbies, Andre Pretorius has already been ruled out for the season and that’s a disruption they didn’t need.
The forward pack should be able to compete but the new look backline might take a bit longer to gel.
If Matt Giteau gets over his niggling injury and starts against his old team, he can expect a torrid time. Most experts have the Brumbies in their top four based on the fact that Giteau and Rocky Elsom have been added to an already talented squad, but they have to learn to win consistently on the road. They are away for the first three weeks in Perth, Pretoria and Cape Town.
A first up win will give them plenty of confidence and I’m picking them to live up to expectations and claim a scalp in week one.
Adam Ashley-Cooper; Pat McCabe, Stirling Mortlock, Christian Lealiifano, Francis Fainifo; Matt Giteau/Matt Toomua, Josh Valentine; Stephen Hoiles (capt), George Smith, Rocky Elsom; Justin Harrison, Mark Chisholm; Guy Shepherdson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander.
Replacements: Huia Edmonds, Salesi Maafu, Ben Hand, Mitchell Chapman, Patrick Phibbs, Tyrone Smith, Alfi Mafi, Afusipa Taumoepeau.
Cheetahs v Bulls
The first of the all-South African affairs and while their Currie Cup teams, Free State and Blue Bulls, have had a good rivalry over the years, they are worlds apart in Super Rugby.
The Bulls are the defending champs and have been semi-finalists in four of the past five years. The Cheetahs’ best finish since the tournament expanded to 14 teams is 10th.
The Cheetahs have two world class loose forwards in Juan Smith and Heinrich Brossouw, but they don’t get a lot of support.
The Bulls will miss try scoring machine Bryan Habana but they still have an abundance of international stars in the squad. The Bulls should get off to a winning start in their title defence.
Free State Cheetahs:
15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 Corné Uys, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Jongi Nokwe, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Ashley Johnson, 7 Juan Smith (captain), 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 David de Villiers, 4 Nico Breedt, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Frans Viljoen, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Danwel Demas.
Crusaders v Highlanders
The Highlanders might have won the last two games against their New Zealand South Island rivals but it hasn’t helped them a great deal.
The men from Dunedin haven’t finished in the top half of the table since they made the semis in 2002. They’ve become the poor cousin of Kiwi rugby relying most seasons on the draft or the list of players not wanted by the other franchises.
But if there’s one game that brings out the best in the Highlanders it’s this one. There’s nothing like beating big brother but with Dan Carter back in the driver’s seat it’s hard to see the Crusaders losing first up.
Feeder team Canterbury won the Air New Zealand Cup last season and there’s a great mix of experience and youth in the squad. The Crusaders look certainties to reach the semis yet again and I’m tipping them to start with a bang this week.
Reds v Waratahs
This is one of the great rivalries in Australian sport and irrespective of how they are placed on the points table at any given time, form goes out the door and passion comes to the fore.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Reds players would rate a win over the Waratahs higher than anything else. It took the Waratahs nine seasons to post their first ever win over the Reds in Super Rugby, but since then the Tahs have won five on the trot.
No more than seven points have separated the two teams in the past two outings and I’m expecting another close one this year.
New Reds’ coach Ewen McKenzie is up against his old team while former Reds’ star Berrick Barnes returns to his old stomping ground in Brisbane and he’s been guaranteed a hostile reception from former teammates and fans.
On paper the Waratahs look to have the Reds covered in most positions but these local derbies are usually won on commitment rather than form. If the Tahs are up for it they’ll win, but don’t write off the Reds at home.
Lions v Stormers
The Johannesburg-based Lions have a new coach in Dick Muir but will it be the same old story for the perennial underachievers?
They’ve finished in the bottom three for the last three years and they haven’t beaten the Stormers since 2001. They’ve lost their main strike weapon in the backline, Jaque Fourie, so there’s not a lot to get excited about again this year.
The Stormers have recruited Bryan Habana from the Bulls and Fourie from the Lions and they’ll be out to impress from the outset.
Luke Watson might not have been the most popular guy in South African rugby before he moved to Bath in England, but he has always been one of the Stormers’ best players. He’ll be missed but Boks’ forwards Schalk Burger and Andries Bekker should steady the ship.
Stormers to make it nine in a row against the Lions.
Sharks v Chiefs
This one will be worth waiting up for. The Sharks have plenty of Springboks across the paddock and have been consistently in the top half of the table over recent years while the Chiefs are coming off their best ever finish to a Super Rugby season.
The Sharks might have the home ground advantage first up but the Chiefs have had plenty of time to travel to Durban from the Waikato.
Not having Mils Muliaina and Lelia Masaga first up is not ideal for the Chiefs but they’ll still field a classy backline led by All Blacks Brendon Leonard, Stephen Donald, Richard Kahui and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
The Sharks have lost Francois Steyn to France and Argentine superstar Juan Hernandez has been ruled out for the season through injury, so their depth will be tested.
A lot will depend on Ruan Pienaars’ general direction and while this one should be close, I’ll tip the Sharks to win first up at home.