Before Super Rugby kicked off, predictions were made and justifications put forward to back up said predictions.
Of most sides, and particularly the Australian sides, I made references to the first five rounds being the sample size to determine how good or otherwise each side is going.
But four rounds now behind us, I don’t really think we need to wait another week. It’s pretty obvious that some predictions are well off already, and therefore, we can already put the line through some teams.
So, to recap…
After a first glance at all the squads back in mid-February, I put these guestimations forward:
AFRICA 1: Bulls, Stormers, Sunwolves, Cheetahs
AFRICA 2: Lions, Jaguares, Sharks, Kings
NEW ZEALAND: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs, Crusaders, Blues
AUSTRALIA: Reds, Waratahs, Rebels, Brumbies, Force
It already looks like it’s the Stormers’ conference to lose. We still won’t know about them properly until they tour New Zealand, but they’ve started the season better than I expected and the off-season consolidation has worked very well.
The Bulls on the other hand, have been underwhelming and I think they’re in for a hard time in New Zealand starting this weekend coming. They’ve been very hot and cold and Handre Pollard, even coming back from serious injury, has been the poster boy for their consistent inconsistency.
The Cheetahs are having more moments than I thought they would, but it’s the opposite for the Sunwolves. The Cheetahs are a big chance of knocking off the Sharks this weekend, but I’m really not sure when the Moondogs’ first win will come.
It’s pleasantly surprising to see how tight this conference already is. After four rounds, the Jaguares, Lions, and Sharks all have three wins, and are separated by just one competition point, and 17 points for-and-against. I’m still happy with the finishing order I put forward, but it’s going to be a whole lot tighter than appeared would be the case six weeks ago.
The Lions will give the competition a very good shake this season. They won’t go through unbeaten from here, but there’s also not that many games that jump out as games they will definitely lose. In the Force-Rebels-Brumbies, they’ve got very favourable Australian tour, and a top two finish looks very, very likely.
The Jaguares and the Sharks will battle out for second in this conference, but the Jaguares look well ahead already. On two games’ evidence, I’m not sure who can beat them at home, and they’re good enough to win games on tour as well – if they can hold their discipline. The Sharks look a bit too Patrick Lambie-dependent suddenly, and none of the concerns I had about them pre-season have been resolved.
The Kings won’t get anywhere near the playoffs, that’s no surprise, but they are definitely a better team than I suspect most of us thought would be the case. They’ve effectively started from scratch, but have stumbled upon a team of hard-working, honest toilers. And a sharp-shooting goal-kicker in former Shark and Jake White Brumby, Lionel Cronje! I think they’ll get a big scalp somewhere in the next month.
Even knowing what I know now, there probably isn’t much to change about the New Zealand prediction. I’d swap the Crusaders and the Highlanders, but the rest would stay as is. And that might be rough on the Chiefs, keeping them at third, but they haven’t quite shaken that feeling I have that the bubble will burst at some point.
The Crusaders, too, have started a whole lot better then I expected, but on reflection it’s not that surprising at all. For years now the Crusaders have lost players, pulled the lever, cranked the wheel in the factory, and out pops yet another ready-made replacement.
The Highlanders look vulnerable at the moment, and the worry with them will be that if they lose too many more games, they won’t be able to make up the lost ground. They’ve had a shocking start to the season injury-wise, and I’m not sure they’ve got the depth as the teams above them in the conference.
And the Hurricanes and Blues will finish where I had them from the start. The Blues are a better side than last year, and worryingly, so are the Hurricanes, but where the Hurricanes already look well-drilled and well-oiled, the Blues look their very up-and-down best (or worst, depending on your perspective).
If there’s one thing in the Australian conference I’m pleased about, it’s that it is going to be as tight in 2017 as I thought it might be. And I’m actually more pleased for the fact that the two teams playing the best rugby so far are the teams I had finishing fourth and fifth.
I didn’t think the Brumbies would get anywhere near finishing as conference champion, but that now looks very real. If they can keep showing the weekly glimpse of improved attack as they have across four games, then they’d deserve to be part of the playoff discussions.
And I’m confident the Force won’t finish fifth in the conference now. To be fair, I wrote at the time that I thought it was harsh ranking them at fifth, and I’m pleased that’s proved to be the case already. There’s a lot to like about the Force, and this mini-tour of New Zealand is a really good challenge. Ryan Louwrens and Jonno Lance have started well in the halves, the pack is working well despite some injuries, and Curtis Rona and Chance Peni already present biggest right-edge defence in Australia.
The Reds were terrible in Johannesburg, there’s no doubt about that, but that doesn’t erase the good showings in the matches before the Ellis Park thumping. How they now cope without Quade Cooper and James Slipper will be the big test for the young blokes, but if they embrace the challenge and not shy away from it, there’s plenty of time to set up a successful season.
There’s plenty of time for the Waratahs too, and they should be able to do just that with the talent available. But they’ve looked flat for most of the opening month, to the point where I’m not even sure if they can beat the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday night, especially if Bernard Foley remains in the ‘civvies’.
A team that strong shouldn’t be fourth in the conference, and it will be interesting to see if Darryl Gibson follows through with his threat to swing the axe this week. I wonder if it will extend to some big names?
And that just leaves the Rebels. I can’t really work why a team in which a large chunk of players who have been together now for several years can be playing like they just met in February, and nor am I sure that they’re capable of making the improvements they so desperately need.
So to finish this exercise, I’ll say this: the Rebels will not finish anywhere near the playoffs this season as I hoped they might.
And though I absolutely look forward to them proving me wrong, it’s worth noting that after three games this season, the Rebels have a larger negative points differential and have scored fewer while conceding more tries than the Kings had managed this time last season.
And they were playing their first games together.