Weekends are about to adopt a meaningful structure again, with just days until Round 1 of the 2016 Super Rugby competition.
Across the nation people who only subscribe to Foxtel because of rugby are dusting off their remotes and setting up their recordings. Casual fans are squinting in disbelief at the new competition structure and draw, but it wouldn’t be Super Rugby without some lopsidedness would it?
And diehards are doing their research.
I have to admit, after last year’s long season and an exciting World Cup, it was good to have a break over summer.
But the season has arrived and it feels right. One only has to peer back into the misty memory bank to the Super Rugby finals of last year or the World Cup to get excited again. Rugby is in a good place right now.
It would be easy to focus on the admittedly strange competition structure and unbalanced draw, but the rugby itself should help ease the pain. At the top, it is being played to a standard and with a style not seen since the game turned professional.
Last year was dominated by an exhilarating Hurricanes team, one of the best in the competition’s history. A Highlanders team that promised so much for so long finally delivered and pipped them right on the line – ah, yes, now you’re remembering that game. If there was no World Cup in 2015, the Super Rugby final would have been enough.
Now you’ve been tantalised, I’ll make some foolhardy predictions.
The Hurricanes might actually be better
I know, I know, preseason scores aren’t meant to be taken seriously. But beating the Crusaders 74-7 has to mean something.
While it isn’t a fair reflection on the two teams in totality – the Crusaders were missing many more starting players than the Hurricanes – there is one takeaway of which we can be sure.
The Hurricanes are pissed.
They led from pole position last year and got beat on the final lap. That hurts. They’ve returned the most of the crew that blitzed the field last year, both in wins and style, and they’re playing for keeps again.
A major test will be whether Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso allow others to shine and overcome the departed Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu.
All signs point to the Hurricanes going about their work in a similar fashion to last year, and everyone should be a little bit scared.
The Brumbies are the only Australian team with a realistic chance of winning the final
Others have nominated the Waratahs as a team to watch, but winning the title would take too much injury luck for them. They have a thin forward pack and any injuries to the back five will be tough to cover.
The health and performances of Wycliff Palu, Will Skelton, Dave Dennis and Michael Hooper are vital. Those four are strong players, but there isn’t much behind them. Over the course of a season that is likely to be exposed.
Out the back the Waratahs are already looking at starting an uncapped player or Matt Carraro at inside centre because of Bernard Foley’s injury.
No, the Brumbies have the mix of experience, depth and emotional impetus to perform over the length of a tough season.
2016 will be the last go round for Stephen Moore at the Brumbies. He is one of the most accomplished players in any Australian side, and the team will absolutely go to war to win for him.
It could be the last year for David Pocock as well, and while he might not have the same depth of connection with the team, he will certainly lift, making him even more influential.
They have four good-enough props, three very good second rowers, four strong backrow players, and options with experience in the backs.
Super Rugby is getting longer and tougher – this is the kind of team to back over the distance.
For the second year in a row the Crusaders will miss the finals
Last year I made a massive song and dance about calling the Crusaders demise early. I’m going extra early again this year. Dancing on their grave you ask?
They’ll miss out because the Hurricanes and Highlanders are going to be very good again. On top of that, the Chiefs will be strong too – if only because it’s not likely Aaron Cruden will spend that much time off the field again.
It will be very hard (although not impossible, because this competition is messed up) for four New Zealand teams make the finals, and the Crusaders won’t be in the top three. If they are, it will be because they play an extremely boring ten-man game and grind teams down. I don’t want to cheer for that and the current rugby trends don’t reward it.
Points differentials are going to cop a hammering this year
With some new and not-very-good teams entering the competition there are going to be plenty of blow outs this year. Super Rugby admitted as much by changing the bonus-point rule from scoring four tries to winning by three or more. The benchmark is no longer playing an entertaining game and winning 37-35. They want teams to play out the string and win 45-10 on the road instead of cantering home to an easy 27-10.
The Cheetahs, Reds, Blues and Force were all worse than -150 on the points differential at the end of last year.
Port Elizabeth would be a good bet to push -200 or more, especially as the organisers are asking teams to win each game by 21 to get a fifth log point. Over 15 matches losing by 21 is minus-315, so bursting through minus-200 is almost a sure thing isn’t it?
Moving along, this is getting morbid.
The South African conferences will be twice as frustrating, because there is two of them
Last year the South African conference was marred by mediocrity, inconsistency and uncertainty. The Stormers made it out of the group but only had one more competition point than the seventh-placed Crusaders. The Lions played entertaining rugby but finished eighth and had 22 more points scored against them than they scored, despite a solid winning record.
The Bulls were hot and cold. The Sharks fell apart, and the Cheetahs were disappointing.
Splitting them in two, adding the Port Elizabeth team and teams from Japan and Argentina doesn’t sound like it will make things clearer. Even if the ladder becomes more obvious in terms of wins and losses, it’ll be hard to work out what is real and what isn’t until the finals.
We are all going to be distracted by sevens at times
Quade Cooper. Sonny Bill Williams. Bryan Habana. The all-conquering Australian women. They’re all going to factor in our rugby diet this year, with an eye on the Rio Olympics.
Channel Seven will get to know the stars throughout the year to maximise their two weeks of bumper ratings, and with rugby in the mix they’ll go to the well over and over.
The international sevens circuit has already had plenty of airtime, after moving to the biggest media market, Sydney. That circus will stay in the spotlight right up until the opening ceremony.