Early days, but surely some teams are already out of the title picture. In fact, it looks to me that only eleven teams are truly in this competition, with three of those (the Reds, the Highlanders, and the Waratahs) hanging on by the skin of their underpants.
First, let’s examine the credentials of the obvious contenders. The Crusaders and the Chiefs are representing each of New Zealand’s islands with aplomb. The Chiefs have scored thirty points a game against quality teams, come hard and low at the ruck, break the line ad nauseam, and are brutal on defence.
They seem to be on some sort of image redemption mission. Nobody really wants to play them.
The Crusaders are winning the best way: ugly. At the death. With cheeky malice. Almost inevitably. Can they improve? Yes! That’s the scary part. They are lineout menaces; with a hard pack and a joy in their rugby. But can they stay healthy, and do they have the depth needed?
Nobody will count the Hurricanes out; with their clever coaches, their slippery ability to play tight or loose and odd way of changing games in little five minute bursts of genius. The loss to their rivals will probably wake them up.
These Kiwi teams seem to stack up:
From South Africa, the Lions, Stormers and Sharks return as the most likely candidates for surprise glory. The Stormers are throwing flatter passes, dropping fewer 50-50 balls, and scoring more tries (15 so far) and more attractive tries as a result of better-shaped support lines and greater enterprise, particularly from their halves. Their Bok locks are in top form.
The Cape side should get to five wins without a loss, but their acid test comes later, against New Zealand teams.
If anything, the Sharks have looked even more impressive. Had Patrick Lambie’s kick gone over in Brisbane, they would have had a perfect season at this point. They sport a harder-than-teak pack, an aggressive tackle technique, and uncompromising midfielders.
The Lions should be there, too, at the end, but the loss to the Jaguares exposed a few flaws. Also, the chop-and-change at 9 and 10 could be preventing a smooth flow.
I would stack these teams:
If I combined them with the Kiwi teams, I’d put them all below the Canes.
The Brumbies are in the mix, but unimpressively (a -1 point differential, the only team with a negative margin in the top eight). The Jaguares look more like a contender.
So, I would rank the top eight as follows:
As for the three on the bubble?
What say you, Roarers? Have I gone off too early with my predictions or do I have the upcoming season all worked out?