Super Rugby Preview 2018 – NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
On February 17, the 23rd edition of Super Rugby kicks off in Cape Town with the first of 120-regular season matches seeing the Stormers and the Jaguares clash at Newlands. The perennial superpowers of Super Rugby, the Crusaders, secured their eighth Super Rugby title last season, with a 25-18 win over the Lions in Johannesburg. In 2017, 142 matches were played and a total of 978 tries were scored, the highest tries per game ratio in the tournament’s history (6.89/game). Elton Jantjies of the Lions ended up as the tournament’s top points scorer with 197 and Hurricanes powerhouse Ngani Laumape crossed the chalk 15 times to lead the competition. As The Profits resident rugby union contributor, each week I will provide my thoughts, analysis and betting plays for the duration of the competition. Over the next six months, some of the most physical, athletic, skilful and exciting rugby players on the planet will compete for glory in what is arguably the toughest and most competitive provincial rugby tournament in the world.
The 2018 season reverts back to a 15-team, three Conference format with the Western Force (Australia), Cheetahs and Kings (both South Africa) all eliminated from last year’s edition. Each team will play 16 regular season matches that includes eight matches (home and away) against teams in their own Conference and eight matches (home and away) against teams in the other Conferences. The winners of each of the three conferences (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) will automatically qualify for the quarterfinals, alongside the next five best teams across all Conferences. This format eliminates the contentious issues that have plagued the last few seasons and ensures that the best teams will be represented in the playoff picture.
Below you will find an in-depth analysis of each team in the New Zealand Conference. I understand that many of you will think differently, but as we have all figured out over the years, Super Rugby is an extremely tough competition to predict. In the end, that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch. I look forward to your company throughout the season and make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, insight or just for a chat.
Best Bet: Hurricanes to win the competition @ $5.00 – Bet365
Team Base: Wellington, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Coach: Chris Boyd
Captain: TJ Perenara (Halfback)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/Semi-finals
Key Players Gained: Asafo Aumua (Hooker), Alex Fidow (Prop), Isaia Walker-Leawere (Lock), Gareth Evans (Flanker), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Flyhalf), Ihaia West (Flyhalf)
Key Players Lost: Loni Uhila (Prop), Mark Abbott (Lock), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Halfback), Otere Black (Flyhalf), Cory Jane (Wing)
Superstars: Dane Coles (Hooker), TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett (Flyhalf), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Outside Back), Jordie Barrett (Fullback)
Rising Prospects: Asafo Aumua (Hooker), Alex Fidow (Prop), Isaia Walker-Leawere (Lock)
The reigning Champions entered the 2017 season as favourites to defend their title and they came extremely close bowing out to the Lions in a Semi-final in Johannesburg. The Hurricanes won 12 of their 15 regular season matches and were the only team to beat the Crusaders, a 31-22 win in the final round of the regular season. The Hurricanes broke the try-scoring season record amassing 97, 16 more than the record set by the Lions the year before. They played an extremely entertaining and high-octane brand of rugby and managed to secure the second-best defensive record (points allowed and tries allowed) in the competition, something coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree would’ve been extremely proud of. Players like Vaea Fifita and Ardie Savea showed that they can mix it with the best and the Wellingtonians have the best 9-10 combination of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett in provincial rugby. Their vision and explosive speed created a number of opportunities for the key centre pairing of Ngani Laumape (15 tries) and Vince Aso (14 tries), who led the competition. Fullback Jordie Barrett also had a phenomenal breakout season and was arguably the Hurricanes best and fairest.
Looking ahead to this year, not a lot has changed in the Hurricanes setup. Dane Coles looks set for an extended rest on the sidelines due to a knee injury sustained in Europe, but this is offset by the emergence of Asafo Aumua, a player who took the Under 20 Rugby World Cup by storm last season. So much so, Aumua was rewarded with a spot in the touring party with the All Blacks at the end of last season. Two other up and coming youngsters include prop Alex Fidow and lock Isaia Walker-Leawere. They both featured heavily for Wellington in their Mitre 10 Championship winning feat last season. The inclusions of Gareth Evans (Highlanders), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Rebels) and Ihaia West (Blues) will also strengthen their depth.
Prediction: The Hurricanes are well coached, have a great mix of youth and experience and are rife with Test match quality players. I expect the Hurricanes to win the New Zealand Conference, secure a home Final and win their second title in three seasons.
Best Bet: Hurricanes to win the competition @ $5.00 – Bet365
Team Base: Christchurch, New Zealand
Home Stadium: AMI Stadium
Coach: Scott Robertson
Captain: Sam Whitelock (Lock)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Winner
Key Players Gained: Tom Sanders (Flanker)
Key Players Lost: Marty McKenzie (Flyhalf)
Superstars: Sam Whitelock (Lock), Kieran Read (Number 8), Ryan Crotty (Centre)
Rising Prospects: Richie Mo’unga (Flyhalf), Jack Goodhue (Centre), Will Jordan (Fullback)
The perennial superpowers of the competition justified their number one all-time billing with their first Super Rugby title since 2008, last season. They were easily the best team across the board in 2017, notching up a record-breaking 14-match win streak en route to a near-perfect regular season. In the playoffs, they shutout the Highlanders (17-0), dominated the high-flying Chiefs (27-13) and became the first team to cross the Indian Ocean to win the Super Rugby Championship with a 25-17 victory over the Lions in Johannesburg. It was Scott Robertson’s first season in charge and the region couldn’t have asked for much more. Looking ahead to this season, fans of the red and blacks will have high hopes of becoming the first team since 2012-2013 to win back-to-back titles and it makes sense, given they will roll-out an almost unchanged squad.
The Crusaders have always had a strong forward pack and that trend will continue this year. When fit, they boast a pack that features seven players with All Blacks experience however, the Crusaders will be without Joe Moody, Owen Franks and Kieran Read for the first few months of the competition, which could provide other teams with an opportunity to gain some ascendency up front in matches and create some breathing room on the competition ladder. Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall have both come on in leaps and bounds over the past couple seasons, with Richie Mo’unga one of the most complete flyhalves in the competition. Ryan Crotty has been an unsung hero at both domestic and International level for many seasons and his partnership with Jack Goodhue is a blossoming one. Robertson has plenty of outside backs to choose from and the season ahead will be an important one for Israel Dagg, a player who has fallen out of favour recently with the All Blacks due to consistent injury troubles.
Prediction: The Crusaders are the reigning Champions and will have a target on their back heading into this season. This is nothing that they aren’t used to and have what it takes to do the double. However, being without a few of their key players during the first few months of the competition could cost them a home play-off fixture, which we all know is extremely important. I predict the Crusaders to exit this year’s competition with a heart-breaking semi-final loss.
Team Base: Dunedin, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Coach: Aaron Mauger (new coach)
Captains: Ash Dixon (Hooker) and Ben Smith (Wing/Fullback)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/Quarter-finals
Key Players Gained: Tyrel Lomax (Prop)
Key Players Lost: Joe Wheeler (Lock), Gareth Evans (Flanker), Shane Christie (Flanker), Marty Banks (Flyhalf), Malakai Fekitoa (Centre), Patrick Osborne (Wing)
Superstars: Liam Squire (Flanker), Aaron Smith (Halfback), Waisake Naholo (Wing), Ben Smith (Outside Back)
Rising Prospects: Tyrel Lomax (Prop), Dillon Hunt (Flanker)
Two years after winning their maiden Super Rugby title, there were high hopes in Dunedin to push for another Championship. Their season started slowly with three defeats in their first four matches, however, their luck turned and the Highlanders won ten of their remaining 11 matches, setting up a daunting Quarterfinal against the eventual Champions, the Crusaders. The cold and wet conditions proved too much for the attack-minded Highlanders with the fact the they play all their games under the roof in Dunedin a potential factor of their demise. Key players in Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith missed a lot of the season with journeymen like Liam Coltman, Tom Franklin, Luke Whitelock and Richard Buckman all standout performers.
After just one year in charge, Tony Brown has stepped down as coach to take up an assistant coaching role for the Japan national team and he has been replaced by former All Blacks centre Aaron Mauger. Mauger won’t be able to call upon Joe Wheeler, Gareth Evans, Shane Christie, Marty Banks, Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Osborne who have all left the franchise. They are all players who are a key part of the Highlanders fabric and their absence will be felt. To what degree depends on how much load players like Ash Dixon, Elliott Dixon and Liam Squire can take up front. This will also be Lima Sopoaga’s last season for the Highlanders having committed to London Wasps in the English Premiership at the culmination of this season.
Prediction: The Highlanders have lost a lot of experience but they still possess players who are arguably some of the best in the world in their positions Aaron Smith, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith. I question the make-up of their tight five with no notable Test players and this is an area I expect opposition teams to target. They are a team that grinds opposition down and seldom get blown out so I still see them qualifying for the play-offs, but a third Final appearance looks a bit too optimistic for this squad.
Team Base: Hamilton, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Coach: Colin Cooper (new coach)
Captains: Sam Cane (Flanker)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/Semi-finals
Key Players Gained: Tyler Ardron (Number 8), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Halfback)
Key Players Lost: Hika Elliot (Hooker), Tom Sanders (Flanker), Michael Leitch (Number 8), Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Halfback), Aaron Cruden (Flyhalf), Stephen Donald (Inside back), James Lowe (Wing)
Superstars: Brodie Retallick (Lock), Sam Cane (Flanker), Damien McKenzie (Flyhalf)
Rising Prospects: Mitchell Karpik (Flanker), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Halfback) Shaun Stevenson (Outside Back)
The two-time Super Rugby champions headed into the 2017 season facing a mass exodus of players, but still managed to be one of the most exciting teams in the competition. Similarly to 2016, their campaign ended at the Semi-final hurdle, this time against the eventual Champions, the Crusaders (13-27). Twelve victories from their 15 matches is a more than credible performance and players like Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown and James Lowe were key players across their campaign. For the second season in a row, Damien McKenzie was named Super Rugby Player of the Year. The Chiefs number 15 was top of the charts for carries (242), metres made (1,666) and defenders beaten (80), whilst also ranking in the top three for clean breaks (35) and points scored (140). These are exceptional stats for a 22-year-old and it comes as no surprise that he has cemented his place in an All Blacks jersey.
The 2016 season signalled the end of the road for coach Dave Rennie, a man who transformed the Chiefs from perennial underperformers to Champions. Joining Rennie on the way out are Chiefs stalwarts Hika Elliot, Michael Leitch, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Stephen Donald and James Lowe. Rennie has been replaced by former Maori All Blacks coach Colin Cooper. The Chiefs still have a number of number of tough heads under contract including Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane and Cooper has already suggested that McKenzie will be shifted to flyhalf to fill the gap left by Cruden (also under instruction by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen). The Chiefs have always had dangerous backs and I have no doubts that McKenzie will be able to deliver them good ball on a platter, however, they have lost a lot of experience and their depth will be tested should they pick-up a few injuries.
Prediction: The Chiefs have a good young core, but they have been the hardest hit in terms of losing key personnel ahead of this season. They’ll continue to exhibit that exciting end-to-end brand of rugby that they have become known for, but they’ll struggle coming up against their more experienced and structured New Zealand Conference rivals. I’d be surprised if they equalled or bettered last year’s Semi-finals effort.
Team Base: Auckland, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Eden Park
Coach: Tana Umaga
Captain: Augustine Pulu (Halfback)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 5th/9th
Key Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Key Players Lost: Charlie Faumauina (Prop), Steven Luatua (Flanker), Piers Francis (Flyhalf), Ihaia West (Flyhalf), Rene Ranger (Wing)
Superstars: Patrick Tuipulotu (Lock), Sonny Bill Williams (Centre), Rieko Ioane (Wing)
Rising Prospects: Akira Ioane (Back Row), Stephen Perofeta (Fullback)
Another season and another failure to qualify for the playoffs was the headline for the Blues in 2017. In Tana Umaga’s second Super Rugby season in charge, the Blues finished in ninth place, but managed one less victory (7 wins from 15 games). The Blues remain the great underachievers of New Zealand rugby with the other four franchises all qualifying for the playoff series. To be fair they only lost two matches to non-New Zealand opposition (Stormers), but their end-of-season meltdown to the Sunwolves (21-48) in Tokyo was a sour note for the Blues and their fans to finish on. Given that Auckland is the most populous city in New Zealand and with their high schools ranking amongst the best in the country, the Blues results over the past decade don’t make a lot of sense.
Looking ahead to this season, the Blues have failed to attract any big names Eden Park. Their front row of Manu, Parsons and Tu’ungafasi will set a good platform up front with Patrick Tuipulotu and power lock and one of the best forward ball-runners in New Zealand. Their back row stocks are also healthy with the likes of Jerome Kaino, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane. Umaga has entrusted Augustine Pulu with the Blues captaincy and rightly so, given the fact that he has been one of their better and more consistent performers over the past few seasons. The loss of Piers Francis and Ihaia West will stifle their backline somewhat, however, I am excited to see the emergence of New Zealand age-grade representative Stephen Perofeta. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a midfield combination of Sonny-Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane at some stage during the competition too, with the latter one of the best players in world rugby.
Prediction: All in all, I expect the Blues woes to continue this season with a 5th place finishing in the New Zealand Conference and as a result, they will miss out on the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season, leading to the sacking of Tana Umaga (if it doesn’t happen during the season).