Who are the Super Rugby smokies for 2012?

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Waratahs vs Samoa A. Photo via waratahsrugby.com.au

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This coming season might be the most unpredictable in recent memory. Each conference has at least two and quite possibly three teams in February who deserve to be at the pointy end in August.

Wait, is it rugby season already? It’s still February, for goodness’ sake, and white leather is still being flung at willow around the country. I know summer’s been a bit of a non-event and all, but come on. I haven’t even caught a wave yet.

Yet it is. In fact, it’s been going several weeks already, and while I can mope around muttering ‘global schmorming’ all I like, I am actually looking forward to the 2012 Super Rugby season.

Realistically, the Reds, Stormers, and Crusaders should all feature at the business end. The Blues and even the Waratahs aren’t necessarily that far behind them. I don’t think too many would be surprised if the title went to one of those five teams.

But I reckon there’s a team in each conference capable of upsetting the apple cart. My tipping is dicey at the best of times, but I can already see three that are going to cause me headaches.

Here are my smokies for the coming season.

Over in South Africa, I reckon it’s just about the Sharks’ time. With the Bulls to fall back a peg or two having lost Matfield, Botha, Steenkamp, Russouw and du Preez, the Sharks are, well, circling.

The Sharks have one major point of appeal for me, and it’s probably a factor big enough to drag them from smokey to contender. That factor is clear air for Bismarck du Plessis.

No longer cramped for room by the awkwardness that came with deputising for former Springbok captain John Smit, du Plessis is all set to confirm what plenty of us already think – he is the best hooker and one of the best forwards in world rugby.

I don’t think it’s even a close-run thing anymore. I can’t think who would remotely challenge him. During the Rugby World Cup last year, the difference du Plessis made to the ‘Boks when he came on was as obvious as it was immediate.

All of a sudden, midfield tackles had more oomph in them, and second-phase play had an additional hard runner who could also pop a pass in traffic.

It was hard to believe that Smit was keeping du Plessis on the bench. That won’t be a problem anymore, for either the ‘Boks or the Sharks.

The Sharks have had a decent squad for a few years now, and haven’t really been that busy on the recruitment front for 2012. Familiarity and consistency is going to be their strong suit. I can see them playing finals in 2012, and once there, they wouldn’t just be making up the numbers.

In New Zealand, while the Blues have been getting everyone excited (having a couple of key All Blacks land in your lap will do that), I think it’s actually the Chiefs that will be the big improvers.

The appointment of new coach Dave Rennie, and the recommitment of former All Black assistant Wayne Smith (who’s now not interested in the England job) has been viewed as a major step forward for the mercurial club from the Waikato and surrounding regions.

Aaron Cruden, owner of the most famous skateboard in New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup, will finally get the chance to steer a backline around without the shackles that held him back at the Hurricanes. The lack of plotting against the head coach should make things more workable, too.

The Chiefs haven’t been as busy in the off-season as the Blues, but they’ve still assembled a quality squad which will boast a near-All Black backrow of Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Scott Waldrom.

Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams, Richard Kahui, and Robbie Robinson could form one of the more exciting young attacking backlines in New Zealand, too.

It’s only three seasons ago that they contested a Super Rugby Final. Despite losing the likes of Mils Muliaina, Aled de Malmanche, Stephen Donald, and Sitiveni Sivivatu, I think 2012 could be a year in which they surprise a few.

On this side of the ditch, and despite losing the O’Connor Corporation to the rookie Rebels, the Western Force have that ‘this time we’re serious’ look about them.

The way they swiftly and methodically dealt with the whole Willie Ripia saga was a credit to the club, and it’s clear that they have pulled together as one to move on in search of success.

The appointment of David Pocock as captain, replacing their inaugural skipper Nathan Sharpe, is a good one, and as Force backrower Matt Hodgson has already outlined on The Roar, “All the boys will gladly go into battle with him and for him.”

With a pack laden with Wallabies, along with the inspiration of Pocock and the motivation of Sharpe’s impending retirement, it’s not hard to see the Force playing a direct, physical brand of rugby.

Though there is still space in their roster to find another playmaker, the club is putting its faith in converted flyhalf James Stannard to continue the impressive showings with which he finished the 2011 season. If boom local No.9 Justin Turner can stay fit, the Force will quickly find itself with one of the more exciting halves pairings in Australia.

And with the likes of Cameron Shepherd, Nick Cummins, NRL converts Will Tupou and Jordan Rapana, and marquee Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga out wide, the Force are well-served in the finishing stakes too.

Plenty have been quick to rule a line through the Force (and maybe more after their trial results), but I think a season in which they will be forced to play as a XV, rather than relying on the brilliance of one, could just be the making of rugby in the West.

Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-first-grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009, Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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