Super Rugby 2.0 kicks off this Saturday, a new shortened version of the southern hemisphere competition that hopefully can revitalise it.
When it started in 1996 Super Rugby, then known as Super 12, was exciting and innovative. The best teams and best players from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would do battle with the dawn of professionalism in rugby union.
It was bold, brave and compelling viewing with most of the top union players on the planet involved. The likes of Jonah Lomu, Stephen Larkham, Christian Cullen, Bryan Habana, Joe Roff, Rico Gear and George Smith dazzled and entertaining.
But over time Super Rugby became bloated and boring, losing its way. The competition eventually expanded to 18 teams over-ambitiously and the pool of talent was severely diluted. Many top Antipodeans headed overseas to cash-rich leagues in France, Japan and England. Super Rugby’s modern incarnation had too many teams, too many average games and not enough genuine contests and rivalries, meaning its momentum and growth petered out. Super Rugby became greedy and paid the price.
For the 2018 season Super Rugby has hit the treadmill and slimmed down. The league has taken a knife to itself and cut one franchise from Australia and two from South Africa. Only 15 teams will compete this season, with five coming from New Zealand, four from Australia, four from South Africa and one each from Japan and Argentina. There is hope that this modified system will win back fans and sponsors, bringing some credibility back.
New Zealand clubs have won 15 of the 22 editions of Super Rugby to date. It’s a phenomenal record and unsurprising considering the historic strength of Kiwi rugby. Of those 15 the Crusaders have won eight titles, the Blues three, the Hurricanes one, the Highlanders one and the Chiefs two. Odds are this year’s championship crown is headed back again to the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The 2017 Super Rugby champions were the Crusaders, with the Canterbury-based franchise downing the Lions in Johannesburg. The Crusaders will be favourites to keep hold of their title. They are well-coached by Scott Robertson and have an abundance of All Blacks in their squad – from Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock to Matt Todd, Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty, Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks. They will again be very tough to beat and know how to get the job done.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs will also be up near the top. Both have strong rosters, showcasing just how deep in talent the Kiwi conference is. The Highlanders won’t be pushovers, while the Blues are aiming for better days of old. It’s been long-time since the Auckland club was at the top of the tree in New Zealand.
Across the Indian Ocean and the Lions will be strong contenders from South Africa with Elton Jantijies leading them around the field and Jaco Kriel, Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert in support. Challenging the Lions for top spot in the South African conference will be the Stormers and Sharks. The Cape Town club have a monster forward pack with Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Wilco Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Nizaam Carr, and will do some serious damage.
Then there are the Aussies, who haven’t had a team in the final since the Waratahs won it in 2014. Last year the Brumbies only scraped into the semis, of virtue of being the best Australian team, with an actual finish of 10th. The Rebels were dire, the Reds not much better and the Western Force have been axed. Australian rugby has been on the nose for a while.
Pressure is on Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson after only a measly four wins were managed in 2017. The Tahs have the stars – look at Israel Folau, Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley – but badly need some consistency. If they don’t get it, Gibson will be gone quickly.
The Brumbies look the pick of the bunch, but will have to do without key flanker David Pocock for a few weeks. That is a big blow as Pocock is a world-class talent. New coach Dan McKellar will need young guns Joe Powell, Wharenui Hawera and Tom Banks to fire. The Reds also have a new coach, ex-All Black Brad Thorn, and the chiseled Kiwi will have his work cut out improving the Queenslander side.
2018 is a big year for the Super Rugby competition, one that hopefully can hark back to the glory days of old.