Who are the Super Rugby smokies for 2012?

Brett McKay Columnist

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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
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (109)

    • Roar Guru

      February 21st 2012 @ 3:11am
      Jiggles said | February 21st 2012 @ 3:11am | ! Report

      Nice Article Brett.

      The tussle in the African conference is going to be really intriguing with a lot of the old blokes now gone from South African rugby. I agree with you on Bismarck. Easily the worlds best Hooker and possibly one of the worlds top 3 forwards along with Kaino and Dusautoir.

      I can’t agree with your assessment of the Force to be honest. I really don’t have faith in what Graham is doing over there. The likely starting pack seems very soft both at the set piece and at the breakdown. I do rate Turner and I hope he gets a bit of game time this year.

      I can’t believe you wouldn’t have the Brumbies as darkies! They have one of the best props in the country (palmer) and when Moore is back they will have arguably the best front row in the country also. add in Vaea and Hooper and thats one handy back row to go with it. they also have a very promising backline.

      • February 21st 2012 @ 7:40am
        mania said | February 21st 2012 @ 7:40am | ! Report

        top 3 forwards? what about mccaw, pocock, hBrussow etc?
        bismark is a strong fast powerful dynamic athelete but i think he’ll be shown up this season. downside of bismark is that he doesnt do the tight 5 tasks very well. he’s a great with the ball in hand but doesnt do much when he doesnt have the ball. doesnt counter ruck, maul or clean out. the times he gets turn overs are a fluke. spends way too much time waiting as 1st reciever instead of getting in there and securing or turning over the ball, which is the primary role of a tight5 forward.
        in the tight games he’ll be luggage . if the oopostion is strangling possession then bismark will have nothing to do and doesnt know to go in and contest the rucks and mauls.
        jonSmit was no where near as dynamic as bismark but he did the dirty work thats expected from a tight5. not saying that smit isbetter but he did do the basics.

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 8:41am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:41am | ! Report

        G’day Jigs, you mention the tussle within the African conference being interesting, and it certainly will be. But I was stuned yesterday to see some odds for the season, and the Stormers were the SA favourites, but at about $11 for the title, and at the sixth or seventh line of betting – I can’t believe they’ll be that far down. The odds had the Shorks and Bulls both at $16, which I think flatters the Bulls, to be honest.

        I’ve just got a feeling about the Force, and I’m sure you won’t be alone in your disagreement. In fact, my ‘feeling’ goes against just about every omen or hunch you could find for the Force: no playmaker, no backline gamebreakers, lack of depth, softish front row, ordinary trial form. But the feeing remains…

        And I’m happy to be pleasantly surprised from the Brumbies in 2012. I think anything about 9th or 10th should be considered a bonus, and I don’t have much hope of them playing in the finals. But I’ll happily stand corrected, too. I’m hearing that White is set to name a Kimlin-Vaea-Mowen backrow, so so surprises in how they’re going to play on Friday night..

        • Roar Guru

          February 21st 2012 @ 3:06pm
          Jiggles said | February 21st 2012 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

          geez that $11 is worth a sneaky wager. The Bulls are to short to be honest, I think they will be down in the bottom third of the table, granted I really don’t know much about them.

          There is nothing like gut feeling to guide your picks hey! I want all australian teams to do well, expect maybe the Tah’s, so I’d like to be surprised by the force, but I just don’t see it happening.

          I think maybe the Brumbies at 7th to 10th to be honest. however I don’t have much faith in that backrow. Australian teams never play well with big south african style backrows. I think we need the extra fetcher-link man who adds mobility in defensive line. Look at all the great Australian teams over the last 20 years – Reds in the 90’s, Brumbies naughties, Wallabies naughties – and they all have one thing in common, a small but excellent fether/link man at 7.

          • Columnist

            February 21st 2012 @ 3:58pm
            Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 3:58pm | ! Report

            I was similarly surprised that Vaea was being considered at 7..

            • Roar Guru

              February 22nd 2012 @ 12:12am
              Peter Breckenridge said | February 22nd 2012 @ 12:12am | ! Report

              and me too, did they not watch the debacle of Wallabies V Ireland? A team needs a gunuine No 7.

    • February 21st 2012 @ 3:16am
      Geoff Brisbane now California said | February 21st 2012 @ 3:16am | ! Report

      Chiefs/Highlanders

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 8:59am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:59am | ! Report

        Geoff, if your brief post is suggesting the Highlanders will be up there too, I agree it’s a close run thing given the names they’ve added, but the Chiefs are in front for mine..

    • February 21st 2012 @ 3:17am
      Onor said | February 21st 2012 @ 3:17am | ! Report

      Nice article. I have to agree with most things you say.. Some of the matchups look
      to be mouth watering. Especially the nonu/ranger v SBW/Kahui matchup. Keep an
      eye out for youngsters sam cane and bauden barrett.

      Sam cane is the complete package for our next up and coming openside and bauden
      Barrett is all class for a 19 year old.

      Super rugby broke a few records in Australia last year and I hear it’s on the rise in terms
      of player numbers. I think with the world cup out of the way it will be a its going to be
      a far better year and…

      In terms of measuring the success of the tournament from an NZRU perspective
      Steve Tew wanted to see:

      * depth of talent emerging for the All Blacks;

      * two or three teams competing in the finals, with one going on to win;

      * an increase in television audience but, more importantly, crowds.

      This year’s competition could also mark the end of an era. Quite apart from South Africa’s annual threat to pull out of the tournament unless it gets another team in, it might be the last time the NZRU exclusively holds the licence for their franchises.

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 9:05am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:05am | ! Report

        Onor, I’ve read and heard plenty about this Sam Cane, but haven’t seen him at all and therefore can’t really offer any thoughts. Perhaps you can give me/us a bit more background on him?

        NZ probably have the best chance of getting three teams into the finals, too, so Steve Tew’s wishes could come through there. I think the gap between 2nd and 3rd in the SAf and Aust conferences are probably too big to see three finalists (and that’s despite naming the Force above)..

        • February 21st 2012 @ 5:09pm
          Onor said | February 21st 2012 @ 5:09pm | ! Report

          Sam cane has heart, he is young and is so strong over the ball
          and doesn’t mind putting himself in places where he will get hurt.

          If I could compare him to anyone, he’d be in the josh kronfeild mould.

          Keep an eye out.. also for Brodie rettallick. The 21 year old lock.
          2.04m and 121kg. This guy is physical. If he is partnered with
          another youngster by the name of Romana Graham. There
          will be fireworks.

    • February 21st 2012 @ 8:45am
      sheek said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      Good work Brett.

      I would like to believe the Force will have a good season, but there’s a lack of oomph in the backs. This has been the historical achilles heel for the Force. While their forwards have been willing & competitive, their backs, despite having some high-flyers at different times, simply haven’t been able to put it together.

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 9:07am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        Sheek, see my comment to Jiggles above – there’s no rational reasoning for me to think they’ll do well, yet I do!

        • February 21st 2012 @ 12:26pm
          rl said | February 21st 2012 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

          I’ve got the same feeling in my bones Brett – I don;t expect the Force to make the finals, but their run of close results is set to continue and I expect them to turn some of last season’s close losses into close wins. The whole team is epitomised by Gene Fairbanks – undersized, underspeed, not flashy, and yet not often is he outpointed.

          • Columnist

            February 21st 2012 @ 12:43pm
            Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 12:43pm | ! Report

            RL, that’s a really good analogy, Gene Fairbanks…

    • February 21st 2012 @ 8:53am
      johnny-boy said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:53am | ! Report

      “The way they swiftly and methodically dealt with the whole Willie Ripia saga was a credit to the club” Er didnt it take about 12 months since they found someone within was stealing ?. And you couldnt blame JOC for leaving with such a slack attitude towards having a thief amongst their midst. A moral killer and what did the Force do, sweet bugger all for far too long. I’m picking the Force to struggle badly this year. Especially losing JOC. Richard Brown not knowing where his ideal position is, Matt Hodgson playing second fiddle to Pocock, always and McCalman not knowing whether he is arfa or marfa – or a 6 or a 7 or a 8 – robbie reckons I’m an international qualtiy 7 so I must be good there – so perhaps I should play more like a 7 when I’m playing 8 or I could play like a 6 which is halfway between 7 and 8 – or is it really ? – or should I just play like an 8 and robbie will pick me anyway, anywhere, I prob dont have to concentrate on any one spot cos I can obviously play any position – well so robbie reckons – reckon I might ask him if I can have a go at halfback next ….

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 9:12am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        JB, the collecting of evidence took time, yes, but once they had what they needed to confront Ripia, it all happened very quickly. And I’d be very surprised if that played a major factor in O’Connor leaving, he was playing his own negotiation games when all that was going on, and anyway, Ripia would only have been there for another season or two, whereas the Force were preparing to make O’Connor the man for the next however many years..

      • February 21st 2012 @ 1:16pm
        joe blackswan said | February 21st 2012 @ 1:16pm | ! Report

        JOC leaving the force is simply a case of an individual being more focused on himself than he is the team. It will require some humbling experiences for JOC to change his tune….can’t see that happening in the next season or two. He is a very good player, but he won’t inspire team mates to play for him….IMO.

        • February 21st 2012 @ 1:39pm
          Hertryk said | February 21st 2012 @ 1:39pm | ! Report

          Totally agree..very much a show pony, who isn’t a team player..a Gitz in the making if he isn;t already there…..

    • February 21st 2012 @ 8:56am
      King of the Gorgonites said | February 21st 2012 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      I am totally uninspired by the NZ conference. The obvious stand out will be the Crusaders. but even they will not be what they usually are. McCaw is close to retirement, forced on by injury. Carter is a spent force after his horrendous injury. No proper hoem ground will hurt them. as for the rest of the NZ teams all i see is medicority. teams with plenty of egos and playing in front of small crowds. thats all i see. The highlanders will be a force early on. the chiefs- they will be hopeless. same applies for the hurricanes.

      RSA – once again no clear stadnouts. Cheetahs and Lions to cause a few upsets.

      Australian conference – promises to be the most competitve and best supported conference. rebels to push some teams. force to give nothing away. brumbies to find some young blood. at the end of the day it wll be the tahs/reds at top.

      • February 21st 2012 @ 9:25am
        katzilla said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:25am | ! Report

        It’s good to see your not carrying old grudges into the new year Kog……

      • Columnist

        February 21st 2012 @ 9:28am
        Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:28am | ! Report

        KotGs, I sense you have strong feelings on this…

        I’m not sure I can agree with you completely about the NZ conference: The Blues are like the Waratahs, and have to prove that that are as good as their squad sugests they should be. And that shouldn’t be difficult with Nonu and Weepu lobbing in the neighbourhood. The Crusaders will be finally playing in Christchurch again this year, and that alone should keep them ‘up’. And McCaw and Carter in decline (if that is the case) are still going to be better players than plenty of others at their peak, so I wouldn’t be writing them off so flipantly at all. The Chiefs I’ve talked about already, and as I said above, I think the Highlanders will be big improvers, too. The Hurricances certainly look to be up against it..

        NZ could easily be as close as you suggest the Australian conference will be..

        • February 21st 2012 @ 9:43am
          King of the Gorgonites said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:43am | ! Report

          the big problem i see with the Blues is that there are too many new faces. there combinations and cohesion wl lbe all out in the early rounds. That Tahs consistently under-perform, butr at least they consistently under-perform together. they know their structures. they will have some frustrating losses, but they will also grind out some good wins, starting this saturday night…………..

          • Columnist

            February 21st 2012 @ 9:48am
            Brett McKay said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:48am | ! Report

            alternatively, KotGs, all those new Blues faces might remember that they’ve all played a lot together – and very well – with a small invitational team known as the All Blacks, and they could just click from kick-off on Friday arvo..

            • February 21st 2012 @ 11:25am
              kiwidave said | February 21st 2012 @ 11:25am | ! Report

              Piri’s perennial preseason pot-belly problem (just had to) might see him on the bench for the first couple but here’s hoping…

            • February 21st 2012 @ 11:28am
              Riccardo said | February 21st 2012 @ 11:28am | ! Report

              I agree Brett.

              What has been missing in the last few seasons is stability and I reckon Nonu/Weepu will go some way towards that. They already have attacking talent to burn. I know KPM will be excited to see solid support for Ranger this year!

              The Blues have been there before and are overdue. My pick for the NZ Conference/Championship

              KOtG – This could well be a better year for the Warratahs. As long as injuries and errant decision making under pressure by Barnes don’t hurt them. Oh, & they actually turn up! Because if they do turn up they’re my pick for the Australian Conference.

              PLEASE stop this anti-NZ sentiment mate. You’ll only end up looking foolish…

              • February 21st 2012 @ 11:45am
                King of the Gorgonites said | February 21st 2012 @ 11:45am | ! Report

                Never! At least not until we re-claim what is rightfully ours – the Bledisloe cup!

              • February 21st 2012 @ 12:03pm
                Riccardo said | February 21st 2012 @ 12:03pm | ! Report

                It’ll happen…

                Could be a long wait though my friend.

      • February 21st 2012 @ 9:30am
        Rugbug said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:30am | ! Report

        Hahahaha thank you for the laugh of the year to date KOG
        Australian conference to be the most competitive, god I nearly pee’d myself once I read this.

        • February 21st 2012 @ 9:40am
          King of the Gorgonites said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:40am | ! Report

          Defending champions and WC semi-finalists. all the big guns remained in Australia after the WC. we have not suffered the exodus that NZ and RSA teams have. That will mean the aus teams will show more cohesion in the early rounds.

          i am glad i have you a laugh Rugbug, but after say round 8, lets see who’s laughing.

          • February 21st 2012 @ 10:09am
            Rugbug said | February 21st 2012 @ 10:09am | ! Report

            NZ World Champions, Bledisloe Cup holders, SR runners up not to mention 2 of 4 teams in Semi finals in 2011.
            Sorry KOG there has not been the huge exodus from NZ teams (Chiefs aside) that you wish for us to believe.
            if anything what has happened in NZ KOG is the talent has been spread around therefore making our teams a little more even across the field barring except the Hurricanes who have bleed talent to the Chiefs and Highlanders.

            P.S KOG can you please tell me where the Force, Brumbies and Rebels ended up on the table last year I am quite curious to know

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