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Super Rugby Preview – Special Drawing Board Edition

Hello and welcome to our 2013 Super Rugby preview. Super rugby starts early this year, and will take on a slightly different format as a consequence.  The reason for this is that the Australian teams need to accommodate the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia during the mid-year break.

New Zealand Conference


In all likelihood, the Crusaders will be up there this season. Whilst their 2012 campaign would be considered a failure amongst the team itself due to the fact they didn’t make the final, they showed the rest of the competition that they can win with their marquee players into their 30s.

Right now the Crusaders have an effective mix of youth and age, with much of their youth in their fast-moving backline and much of their experience up front, which is a combination any team would be happy with. Players such as Israel Dagg and Tom Taylor exemplify their youthful backline, while there is no lack of matches in forwards leaders such as Kieran Read and Corey Flynn.

However, the biggest story of the season will be the impact of the loss of Richie McCaw will have. No matter what country you’re from, Richie McCaw is truly a legend of the sport of rugby, and without taking anything away from Kieran Read’s leadership qualities; McCaw is virtually as irreplaceable off the field as he is on. It should certainly be an interesting Richie-less year in Christchurch, but the Crusaders should stay competitive as always.

Prediction: 1st in conference


It’s hard to go past the Chiefs as one of the favourites for the Super Rugby crown in 2013, headed by captains Craig Clarke and Liam Messam, and star player Aaron Cruden, the Chiefs should look to have yet another solid season near the top of the table.

However, the off-season held its’ fair share of disappointment for the defending champions. The Chiefs lost some quality players in the off-season, including Jackson Willison and Kane Thompson, as well as top try-scorer Sona Taumalolo and All Black Sonny Bill Williams. Sona Taumalolo was one of the completion’s top try-scorers, which for a prop is incredible, and Sonny Bll Williams is always a class act, whichever team he’s playing for and whatever sport he’s playing. While these losses will prove disappointing, there’s plenty to be encouraged about.

Aaron Cruden had his breakout year last year, emerging as one of the competition’s best players. He scored 139 more points in 2012 than he did in 2011 with his move from Wellington to Waikato. While the Chiefs will most likely drop off a bit with the loss of star power from 2012, they will still be one of the more competitive teams all year, and you can almost lock them in for finals.

Prediction: 2nd in conference


The Highlanders have been an ever-present team never making much of a dent on the Super Rugby landscape. In their Super Rugby campaign, also of 17 years, they have reached four semi-finals and one final. However, for the last couple of seasons, they have been gathering steam.

They have made some good off-season pickups in 2011 World Cup stars Ma’a Monu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn. Their combined 224 games of All Black experience and 329 games of Super Rugby experience will bolster the Highlanders’ largely youthful lineup. Add these to established players such as Hosea Gear, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Colin Slade, all highly regarded players with All Black experience, and something special might be brewing. They also have a strong core of players such as Jamie Mackintosh, Jarrad Hoeta, Nasi Manu and captain Andrew Hore that round out a strong team.

This may be the year that they kick on to claim a semi-final position on the table, and not just to fizzle out towards to end of the campaign.

Prediction: 3rd in conference


The Hurricanes have been one of those ever-present teams that can never seem to quite put it together correctly. They have made five semi-finals and one final in their 17 year Super Rugby, and while they have many top teams and players pass through, they have never been able to break through for a championship.

Now they seem to be rebuilding again, and they most certainly have some good pieces to do it with. Arguably the brightest young star last year was Beauden Barrett, who managed to get a few All Black caps under his belt despite New Zealand’s incredible depth at his position. Another one to watch for will be Andre Taylor, who led the competition in try-scoring with Bjorn Basson in 2012, and is poised to do better than his 10 2012 tries in 2013.

Taylor is also poised to earn his first All Black caps this year if he can keep his superb form up, and was probably unlucky to not win some last year. Along with these two, the Hurricanes have a plethora of strong players such as Conrad Smith, Cory Jane and Julian Savea, rounding out a very strong backline.

However, it is in the forwards where the Hurricanes might struggle. While they have some strong players such as Dane Coles, Victor Vito and Chris Eaton, the Hurricanes will need more of an All Black presence in their pack to contend for the Super Rugby title.

Prediction: 4th in conference


The Blues have endured several frustrating seasons. Last year was terrible, especially for New Zealand’s biggest franchise. They have an opportunity this year to turn it around.

While they do have some good pieces, many of them are around or over 30, such as Kevin Mealamu, Ali Williams and Piri Weepu, and will soon not be the productive test players they once were. This year, the Blues will truly need to wring the cloth, and get the most out of every player they have. While they did make some positive additions such as serviceable backs Chris Noakes and Jackson Willison, who could both one day play test rugby, these additions were overshadowed by their significant amount of firepower that left Auckland this offseason.

Gareth Anscombe, Daniel Braid, Michael Hobbs, Jerome Kaino, Alby Mathewson, Lachie Munro, Hadleigh Parkes, Benson Stanley, Isaia Toeava, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu and Rudi Wulf are just a few of the names lost to the Blues this offseason.

Unfortunately for the Blues, they will have a short-handed team for most of the year, and they will need plenty of their ITM elevated players to step up and become Super Rugby players this season. Expect improvement, but this might not be their year.

Prediction: 5th in conference

South African Conferance


The Stormers were the champions of the South African conference for the last two seasons, but never kicked on to the final. They played well throughout both seasons, before stumbling in the semi – finals.

So what about 2013? They sure as hell didn’t get any worse by grabbing one of the best off-season recruits in Elton Jantjies. Jantjies is considered one of the best young guns South Africa has to offer, and one of the only reasons Lions fans had anything to be happy about last year.

Don’t be surprised to see him in the Springboks later on this year. Jantjies will be competing with Peter Grant most of the year for the no. 10 Stormers’ jersey, and will be competing with Johan Goosen for a spot at the end of the Springbok’s bench, so don’t expect him to hold anything back on the field this year.

And a Stormers’ preview would not be complete without mentioning something about the long-awaited return of the Incredible Schalk, Schalk Burger. While he may stay sidelined for the Stormers’ first match against the Bulls, he will no doubt return this season, and the legendary flanker will only add extra firepower and fear factor to perhaps the best provincial rugby team in the world.

Prediction: 1st in conference


The Bulls were one of the best teams in the league, let alone South Africa for most of last year, until they disappointed their fans at the end of the season and the finals, ending up losing 28-13 to the Crusaders, in a match that never really was. Expect the Bulls to be back hungrier in 2013. It’s hard to spot many weaknesses in their line-up, and without any major changes made in the off-season, apart from the addition of Grant Hattingh and Lionel Mapoe from the Lions, the Bulls can only get stronger.

They return with players such as 2012 top try-scorer Bjorn Basson, one of the competition’s best, Monre Steyn, as well as a Springbok in nearly every other position on the field. The Bulls challenge for the Super Rugby title almost every year, and have one it three times before. Keen to erase the disappointment of last year, the Bulls will be back with a vengeance.

Prediction: 2nd in conference


The Sharks shocked most last year in the Super Rugby finals, when they made it all the way to the end. In fact, they barely even scraped into the finals, but they saw their window of opportunity when the Brumbies lost to the Blues at home, and from there on, the beat the Reds and the Stormers, two of the best teams all year, both at their home stadiums.

In the final however, they ran into far too much class against the Chiefs. But 2012 was by no means a disappointing experience for the Sharks. I only wish I could say the same about their off-season.

Unfortunately, they lost two key players in Frederic Michalak and Steven Sykes. Michalak is a world-class half who can play both 9 and 10 at the top level, and Steve Sykes and Ryan Kankowski both impressed last year.

While the losses will prove to be disappointing, the additions of Butch James, Franco van der Merwe and a full season with Francois Steyn will certainly give the team plenty more attacking options, especially when their opposition is constantly in threat of being bombed by a drop goal anywhere from 60 metres out from their own line.

All in all, the Sharks should have another positive season, again making the finals, keeping in their fellow finalists minds for weeks to come that a shark attack can come from anywhere at any time.

Prediction: 3rd in conference


Despite their disappointing season last year, and their relatively uninspiring off-season, there is plenty to like about the Cheetahs. Their greatest asset at this point would be Johan Goosen by a county mile.

Goosen is considered to be one of the brightest young South African rugby prospects, and impressed immensely up until the halfway mark of the season when he dislocated his shoulder.

The ‘Boks are clearly very keen to get some Test rugby into him, even beating out champion fly-half Morne Steyn for his spot in the Rugby Championship for two games, before succumbing to yet another injury.

The Cheetahs will also be happy to have talented halfback Sarel Pretorius back in the fray after an ugly sabbatical playing with the Waratahs. They also have the highly rated Heinrich Brussow and Adrian Strauss.

Whilst they are one of the better sides at playing counter attacking rugby, they need to gain both consistency in getting their top side out and in the way they play. Expect them to be dangerous this year again, but to not threaten the playoffs too much.

Prediction: 4th in conference


We have seen over the past few years that the new kids on the block usually become the punching bag for the rest of the comp for a few years – and unfortunately, the Kings will probably be no exception. In fact, they could be the worst.

They have a list devoid of any test talent or experience, and it will take the club a few years to find it’s feet, as it always does. However, they may have to do it in only one, thanks to SARU messing up things again.

To focus on the positives, however, the Kings have done something rarely seen in Super Rugby, in recruiting Pumas Nicolas Vergallo and Tomas Leonardi to the team. Unfortunately, Super Rugby is barely ever graced with test-quality players outside the big three, and Vergallo is a real coup for the side.

If the Kings can recruit some more Springbok experience to go entice more stars, perhaps fellow Argentines can tempt some more national stars such as Juan Martin Hernandez or Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

There is no doubt that more Pumas will be coming to our competition with their instalment in the Rugby Championship, and if the Kings can be the first to crack the vault on the Argentine talent, then they can start to build a multi-cultural talent base not seen often in Super Rugby.

Who knows? Perhaps stars from even bigger nations like Ireland or Wales will start coming over. The Kings have impressed early, managing to tap in to international stardom, and while they won’t do too much impressing on the field for the season, they’ll certainly be an interesting team to watch grow in the next few years

Prediction: 5th in the conference (and last overall)

Australian Conferance


The Reds should remain top of the Australian Super Rugby conference for most of the year, with no other Australian teams quite reaching that ‘elite’ status yet.

However, Australia’s best Super Rugby title hope could win another championship if Quade Cooper can leave behind his unwanted baggage and resume the form that saw him the obvious first choice at flyhalf for the Wallabies in season 2011.

Also crucial to the Reds’ relevancy this year will be the returns of Will Genia and James Horwill.

Both are set to return during the season, Horwill sooner than Genia. If both fail to regain top form the banana benders may be in a bit of trouble.

Unfortunately the loss of Wallaby back-rower Scott Higginbotham is another major disappointment, and players such as Liam Gill will have to step up to fill the void. All in all, it should be an interesting season for the tumultuous Reds.

Prediction: 1st in conference


The Brumbies will look to follow up their ultimate choke in 2012 with a finals appearance in 2013.

They have all the tools to do so, especially considering the presence of the new arrival, Wallaby breakdown king David Pocock. The nation’s capital let out a collective sigh when Wallaby rookie of the year Michael Hooper returned home to NSW to play with the Waratahs. But not for long, as the lineage of great Brumbies sevens continued as they signed David Pocock from the Western Force. Pocock is a master at the breakdown and should create much more phase play and many more opportunities to score.The Brumbies should make Pocock a better player also, as the offensive weapons they possess aren’t exactly rivalled by his old side the Force’s.

A full season for Christian Lealiifano will also work wonders, as he looked a surefire first-choice 10 for the Wallabies until he went down mid-season. Other rising stars returning include Sam Carter, Scott Fardy, Zack Holmes, Jesse Mogg, Joseph Tomane, and I don’t have enough space to mention everyone.

They are all another year older, and their further integration with veterans such as Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore should create a great atmosphere around the club.

Prediction: 2nd in conference


This off-season, the Waratahs had as many disappointing departures as they did encouraging additions.

The top recruit would go to either hometown hero Michael Hooper, Wallaby rookie of the year, Israel Folau, the tremendously talented tri-coder, or head coach Michael Cheika, who has previously experienced success with Leinster, winning the 2009 Heineken Cup.

All three have enormous potential and futures with the club.

However, the Waratahs did lose plenty of good players this off-season, with Chris Alcock, Rocky Elsom and Daniel Halangahu just a few of them.

How well the Waratahs’ youth do this season will be part-and-parcel of how many games they win. Brendan McKibbin wasn’t given captaincy of the side, and the Waratahs will be hopeful he can continue his good form into 2013 and can lead by example on the pitch. There’s no doubt the Waratahs have a good group of players, with Wallabies future and present scattered through the forwards and the backs.

What Michael Cheika will need to help them do this year is forge an identity, preferably one that uses their young, quick, up-tempo style to their best advantage. If he can do that, there’s no reason the Waratahs can’t contend right now.

Prediction: 3rd in conference


Despite the two big Wallaby stars on hand, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, the Rebels’ squad has deteriorated from their inaugural incarnation. They have lost many high-profile names such as Julian Huxley, Mark Gerrard, and even Stirling Mortlock, whose contribution will be missed.Another one missing is Cooper Vuna, who first cracked the Wallaby squad last year. His shoulder injury is expected to keep him out for the year.

However, a welcome in will be Wallaby eighthman Scott Higginbotham from the Reds. He can hope to bolster the Rebels’ pack, and work in union with players such as Gareth Delve and Cadeyrn Neville to form the basis for a potentially very damaging running forwards squad.

Another decisive factor for the Rebels’ success will be how well new leaders stand up after the loss of many years of Super and Test rugby. If James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale, two of the bigger stars around the club, can become quality leaders as well as play the style of rugby they were brought in to play, then the young Rebels may be able to shock a few in 2013.

Prediction: 4th in conference


Let’s face it: the Western Force is an all-round depressing rugby club. Depressing to talk about, depressing to watch play, and during this off-season, it was equally if not more depressing to watch them squirm.

The Force lost yet another franchise player this off-season, with one-man team David Pocock taking his talents to the nation’s capital. Last year it was James O’Connor, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that not many stars want to pay in the glitz and glamour of rugby haven Perth.

The Force will need to solve this problem quickly by creating a positive, reputable attitude, solid in their convictions and sure of their squad. And while it may take a while, especially to get some wins on the board, the Western Force may be able to entice some Test players to their squad with a good, esteemed attitude.

And no one counts out the Force from breeding their own.

Players such as local product Kyle Godwin are said to be future Wallabies, and after being elevated from the extended playing squad to the senior playing squad, the Force will definitely be looking to get plenty of games in him.

However, it will be a long road to the finals for the struggling Force. And I dread to think of where that road will take them this season

Prediction: 5th in conference

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