On February 23, the 22nd edition of Super Rugby kicks off in Melbourne with a match between the Rebels and the Blues. For seven months, the Hurricanes have been able to bask in the glory of being Super Rugby Champions after comprehensively winning the title last season. In 2016, 142 matches were played and a total of 910 tries were scored, the highest tries per game ratio in the tournament’s history (6.4/game). 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.
Looking ahead to this season, there has been widespread speculation about the fairness of the format of the competition. The 18-team competition consists of five teams from Australia, five teams from New Zealand, six teams from South Africa, and a team each from Japan and Argentina, separated over four conferences. Those being: Australia, New Zealand, Africa 1 and Africa 2. All teams will play fifteen regular season games each and this year the Australian conference teams face teams from Africa 2 and the New Zealand conference will face teams from Africa 1. Sanzaar has tweaked the Super Rugby playoff process by ranking the teams from 1-8 based on their final number of competition points attained. The Conference winners will automatically finish in positions 1- 4 and the wildcards (5-8) will be determined by total competition points. The quarterfinals will then see 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5.
Below you will find an in-depth analysis of each team. 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.
New Zealand: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs, Chiefs, Blues
Australia: Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies, Rebels, Force
South Africa 1: Bulls, Stormers, Cheetahs, Sunwolves
South Africa 2: Lions, Jaguares, Sharks, Kings
Best Bet 1: Hurricanes to win @ $5.00 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 2: Waratahs to win Australian conference @ $2.00 – Sportsbet
Best Bet 3: Kings to finish bottom (wooden spoon) @ $1.91 – Sportsbet
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Team Base: Wellington, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Westpac Stadium
Coach: Chris Boyd
Captains: Dane Coles (Hooker)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Champions
Key Players Gained: Sam Lousi (Lock), Jordie Barrett (Centre), Ben Lam (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Motu Matu’u (Hooker), Victor Vito (Number 8), James Marshall (Utility back), Jason Woodward (Utility back)
Superstars: Dane Coles (Hooker), TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett (Flyhalf), Julian Savea (Wing), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Outside Back)
Rising Stars: Vaea Fifita (Lock), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Halfback), Jordie Barrett (Centre)
Hurricanes fans will never forget the 2016 season after convincingly winning the tournament over the Lions in Wellington. Having won the minor premiership in the year prior, and falling short to the Highlanders in the final, the Hurricanes became the fifth and final New Zealand team to win the Super Rugby competition. The Hurricanes managed to score 72 tries, with World Rugby’s player of the year, Beauden Barrett the leading points scorer with 223. When you look at the top try-scorers list last season, no Hurricanes players featured in the top ten, which really shows how the workload was shared and the fact that they didn’t rely solely on one player. What I find most impressive is that the Hurricanes enter the first game of the season knowing that they kept their opposition try-less in the quarter-finals (Sharks), semi-finals (Chiefs) and final (Lions), their last three games. If there is one area that coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree will need to improve, it will be their discipline. The ‘Canes were guilty of giving away more penalties than any other team in the competition.
Looking ahead to this year, not a lot has changed in the Hurricanes setup. Victor Vito is the most notable omission from the squad, but keep an eye on centre Jordie Barrett when he gets some game time, as he is the younger and ‘bigger’ brother of Beauden. He has a towering left boot and doesn’t shy away from contact, as seen recently in the Brisbane Tens tournament. The return of one of the best steppers in the game, Nehe Milner-Skudder from injury after missing almost 12 months of action, will also be a huge boost to the Hurricanes attacking stocks. TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett showed the world why they are the best halfback pairing last season and I expect them to do the same again this time around, with Julian Savea to capitalise on a solid pre-season.
Prediction: The Hurricanes are in the box seat to become the first back-to-back Champions since the Chiefs in 2012/2013.
Team Base: Dunedin, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Forsyth Barr Stadium
Coach: Tony Brown
Captains: Ash Dixon (Hooker), Ben Smith (Wing/Fullback)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/Semi-finalist
Key Players Gained: Tevita Li (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Brendon Edmonds (Prop), Fumiaki Tanaka (Halfback), Marty Banks (Utility)
Superstars: Aaron Smith (Halfback), Malakai Fekitoa (Centre), Waisake Naholo (Wing), Ben Smith (Outside Back)
Rising Stars: Liam Squire (Back Row)
The Highlanders enter this season under Tony Brown, the former Otago and All Blacks hero, as their coach for the first time. He does have experience with the squad having deputised for Jamie Joseph over the past three seasons. Looking at last year, the Highlanders came within a match of putting themselves in a position to be back-to-back champions. A roaring Lions outfit were too strong for the Highlanders at Ellis Park, but the majority of the squad remains and the core is unchanged. Players in the pack that stood out include hooker Ash Dixon (co-captain) and back rower Liam Squire, but it is their word class backline that sends shivers down the spine of their opposition. In the halves, Aaron Smith is due a big year after hitting a low point in his career last season and his partnership with Lima Sopoaga will be crucial, with both players looking to cement themselves in the All Blacks setup heading into the next Rugby World Cup. Malakai Fekitoa blew hot and cold last season, but he is still a very promising player and one of my favourites to watch. The back three of Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo and the world’s best fullback Ben Smith will get great support from the speedsters Matt Faddes (10 tries in 2016) and the Highlanders newest recruit from Auckland, Tevita Li.
Prediction: The Highlanders certainly have the makings of a championship team this year, but I still feel that their pack won’t create the foundations to consistently unleash the best backline in the competition. Semi-finalists again.
Team Base: Christchurch, New Zealand
Home Stadium: AMI Stadium
Coach: Scott Robertson
Captain: Sam Whitelock (Lock)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 4th/Quarter-finalist
Key Players Gained: Bryn Hall (Halfback), Tim Bateman (Flyhalf), Seta Tamanivalu (Centre), Digby Ioane (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Jimmy Tupou (Lock), Andy Ellis (Halfback), Kieran Fonotia (Centre), Johnny McNicholl (Wing), Nemani Nadolo (Wing)
Superstars: Sam Whitelock (Lock), Kieran Read (Number 8), Ryan Crotty (Centre), Israel Dagg (Fullback)
Rising Stars: Codie Taylor (Hooker), Scott Barrett (Lock)
I often refer to the Crusaders as the perennial superpowers of the competition and their record speaks for itself, however, the fact that they haven’t won the title since 2008 would come as a shock to most people. To be fair, they have made four semi-finals and two finals since that point, but Todd Blackadder failed to get them to reach the heights of yesteryear. This will be the first season under the leadership of new coach Scott Robertson, a player who knows the region and the team well having been a member for many of his playing years. Towering lock Sam Whitelock has also been instilled with the captaincy as Kieran Read’s game-time will be managed more closely, now being the captain of the All Blacks.
The Crusaders have always had a strong forward pack and that trend will continue this year with the likes of All Blacks Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd and Kieran Read. Another player I thoroughly enjoy watching is former NZ under-20’s representative flanker, Jordan Taufua, a player who plays well above his weight. The halfback position will be challenged by either Bryn Hall or Mitchell Drummond, but Richie Mo’unga is certainly a player of the future at flyhalf after a breakthrough season in 2016. The acquisition of Seta Tamanivalu (9 tries in 2016) in the centres will create an exciting partnership with him and Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg will be wearing the 15 jersey all season. The loss of Nemani Nadolo, a player that scored six tries, assisted in seven others, and averaged three clean breaks on the back of 66 running metres per game. With that being said, former Reds and Wallabies winger Digby Ioane was impressive for the Crusaders in the Brisbane Tens competition, but his frail knees and shoulders might not let him see out the season.
Prediction: 2017 begins a new era for the Crusaders and I can only see them making the quarter-finals at best.
Team Base: Hamilton, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Waikato Stadium
Coach: Dave Rennie
Captains: Sam Cane (Flanker), Aaron Cruden (Flyhalf)
2015 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/Semi-finalist
Key Players Gained: Finlay Christie (Halfback), Tim Nanai-Williams (Utility back)
Key Players Lost: Pauliasi Manu (Prop), Augustine Pulu (Halfback), Seta Tamanivalu (Centre)
Superstars: Brodie Retallick (Lock), Sam Cane (Flanker), Aaron Cruden (Flyhalf), Damien McKenzie
Rising Stars: Mitchell Karpik (Flanker), Anton Lienert-Brown (Centre), Shaun Stevenson (Outside Back)
The two-time Super Rugby champions headed into last season facing a mass exodus of players, especially with Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams committed to the New Zealand Sevens program. Despite that, the Chiefs did incredibly well to make the semi-finals, eventually bowing out to the imminent Champions, the Hurricanes in Wellington. During the regular season, the Chiefs managed to score the second highest number of tries (76), falling five short of the Lions, who were eventually the competition’s runners-up. It was a season that saw Tom Sanders, Anton Lienert Brown and Damien McKenzie all emerge, with the latter two featuring for the All Blacks throughout the course of the Test season. McKenzie took his opportunity with both hands scoring 10 tries, with an additional 10 try-assists and he also collected 199 total points, the second highest in the competition.
There are some tough heads in the pack with the likes of Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala, Dominic Bird, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and former Japanese captain Michael Leitch. Tawera Kerr-Barlow has a big season ahead of him at halfback and Aaron Cruden will want to leave New Zealand rugby on a high note with this being his last season. The longstanding concussion-related absence of Charlie Ngatai in the midfield for the Chiefs is a huge loss given how he has come on in leaps and bound over the past few seasons, culminating in an All Black cap last season. The Chiefs have always had great outside backs and that is no different this year with James Lowe (one of my favourite players), Tim Nanai-Williams back from Japan and the budding superstar Damien McKenzie the likely starters.
Prediction: The Chiefs depth, especially in the backline might be an issue this season, but if they can sure up their defence, they have enough quality to make the playoffs. However, I can’t see them making the semi-finals this time around.
Team Base: Auckland, New Zealand
Home Stadium: Eden Park
Coach: Tana Umaga
Captain: Jerome Kaino (Flanker/Number 8)
2016 Position (Division/Overall): 5th/11th
Key Players Gained: Pauliasi Manu (Prop), Jimmy Tupou (Lock), Augustine Pulu (Halfback), Sonny Bill Williams (Centre, Stephen Perofeta (Fullback)
Key Players Lost: Quentin McDonald (Hooker), Josh Bekhuis (Lock), Tanerau Latimer (Flanker), Bryn Hall (Halfback), Tevita Li (Wing), Ben Lam (Wing)
Superstars: Charlie Faumauina (Prop), Jerome Kaino (Flanker), Sonny Bill Williams (Centre)
Rising Stars: Patrick Tuipulotu (Lock), Akira Ioane (Back Row), Rieko Ioane (Wing), Stephen Perofeta (Fullback)
Former All Black centre and current Blues coach Tana Umaga’s first season in charge of the Blues was definitely a step in the right direction. For many years, the Blues looked a shadow of the provincial giants that they once were, but last year’s squad achieved their first winning season since 2011. Unfortunately for the Blues, they are forced to play the other four New Zealand teams, both home and away, which holds them at a disadvantage to the other conferences at the end of the season when analysing the playoff picture.
The Blues pack has a youthful look to it, but a front row comprising of All Blacks Charlie Faumauina, James Parsons and Ofa Tu’ungafasi should cause opposition scrums problems. Initially, it was reported that lock Patrick Tuipulotu was due to miss the season as a result of a drugs ban, however, his ‘B’ sample cleared him of any wrongdoing and he is a huge bonus for the Blues. Youngster Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua, Jerome Kaino and Akira Ioane are in the back row, so there are more than enough ball carriers. It will be interesting to see who gets selected as the first choice flyhalf between Ihaia West and Piers Francis because their will be a lot of pressure on them to ignite the game breakers in the outside channels. George Moala, Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Rene Ranger and Sonny Bill Williams are all potential match winners in their own right, it’ll just be about providing them with quality service.
The unavailability of hooker James Parsons (early rounds) and Sonny Bill Williams (at least round six), will stifle their go forward and given the fact they are in the toughest provincial conference in the world, it appears that they might be playing catch up for the rest of the season.
Prediction: Blues to finish 5th in New Zealand and miss out on the playoffs.