SPIRO: The Super Rugby tournament really begins tonight
Pierre Spies (C) of the Bulls tackles Liam Gill of the Reds during the Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, March 24, 2012. (AFP Photo: Alexander Joe)
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It is no disrespect to the Australian conference to say that the 2013 Super Rugby tournament really begins today, with the Highlanders and the Chiefs playing the first match in the New Zealand conference.
The Rebels and the Brumbies follow, while the Bulls and Stormers open up later in the night (much later, in fact) the South African conference.
On Saturday the Hurricanes and the Blues begin their campaigns, then there is the much anticipated Reds – Waratahs clash, followed by the Cheetahs – Sharks and the Kings – Force match to round out.
In my view, the New Zealand and the South African conferences are extremely hard to make predictions about.
There are four strongish teams in South Africa (Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Cheetahs).
The leading teams in this conference will be helped immeasurably by the fact that they should get 10 tournament points for their two matches against the Kings, a side that looks on paper to be about the weakest side to ever compete in the tournament.
South Africans are always going on about how tough their conference is and how weak the Australian conference is. From time to time, this argument makes sense.
But from time to time it is a nonsense. Last season, there were three South African sides in the finals.
Were they there because the conference was strong or because the conference was weak, with the Lions in particular being easybeats?
This season, too, a new rule is in place to prevent halfbacks standing over the ball at rucks like emperor penguins guarding an egg.
It is noticeable that in the Six Nations the only side that has properly adjusted to this rule is England. Ben Youngs clears the ball quickly and effectively from every ruck, whereas the other halves take up the maximum five seconds after the referee calls out to them to ‘clear it!’
It is no coincidence that England have played the best rugby in the Six Nations so far. My feeling is that the South African side that embraces this new ‘use-it or lose-it’ rule will be the side that emerges as the strongest team in this conference.
The Cheetahs, for instance, should love this rule. Their problem has been a general lack of defensive nous that has meant that although they score plenty of points, they also leak huge numbers of points.
And there is a challenge for the Bulls to start playing modern rugby and give away their kick-and-chase game that worked so well when they had the best halfback of the modern era in Frik du Preez putting in the kicks, Bryan Habana making the chases and Victor Matfield winning all the lineouts, on Bulls throws and those of their opponents.
The Stormers and the Sharks were excellent last season, the Sharks in particular having a terrific finals series until they ran out of gas against the Chiefs in the final at Hamilton.
Both the South African derbies, therefore, are going to be interesting in seeing where the teams are and are going to be when the finals series comes around.
With my penchant for kiss-of-death predictions, I am probably doing the Sharks and the Cheetahs no favours by suggesting that they could be finals-bound.
There are no weak teams in the New Zealand conference, I think everyone can agree on that.
The hapless Blues, for instance, have a new coach in Sir John Kirwan. More importantly, Sir Graham Henry is on board to do for Kirwan what Wayne Smith did for new coach Dave Rennie of the Chiefs last season.
Henry has been involved in all three Blues Super Rugby truimphs. He was coach in 1996 and 1997 and an assistant advisor/coach in 2003.
The Blues, too, have the next New Zealand superstar back in Charles Piutau. This is a player who can play all the outside positions, from centre through to fullback, with terrific flair, speed and polish.
The other franchises, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Highlanders and the Crusaders (who don’t play until the third round) are all, on paper at least, contenders.
The Hurricanes, a flaky team far too often, have recruited Ben Franks which should stiffen up a scrum that is sometimes a bit fragile.
They also have a forward equivalent of Piutau in Ardie Savea, the younger brother of the sensational winger Julian Savea. Savea the younger is out for a month because of a spear tackle. But when he comes back, watch out.
The Highlanders finally have some real firepower in the backs with Ma’a Nonu. In the past, the Highlanders have had to rely on smashing away at rucks and mauls (aand often giving away penalties in the process) to accumulate points.
Nonu and Hosea Gear are monster powerhouse backs who could cause havoc against sides that do not make their first tackles.
On paper, therefore, all the New Zealand teams look strong. An intriguing insight into the possibilities for the season for the teams will come this week.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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