Super Rugby has begun: Bold February predictions

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    It’s a rare event that you get to do a token season preview piece after a season has begun, and this was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss.

    Obviously, this has come about because the Super Rugby season has started a week early in South Africa; not at all because I’ve done this a week late. Nope, not my fault, I swear.

    But there is a definite advantage to the timing of this, I’ll admit, because it means that I’ve finally got a look at some South African teams in 2018. With the obvious benefit of hindsight, I must say that what I saw over the opening two games of the Super Rugby season has really just confirmed my suspicions.

    Already, it appears that speed is element that all teams are striving for in 2018. Teams that didn’t really play with it in 2017 have been tinkering to bring it into their game this year, and those that did have been refining it even further. Undoubtedly it means some teams will be left behind within the three conferences.

    And I also think it will really compress the gap between those mid-table teams. That’s going to make February predictions even harder again, but nevertheless, here’s how I see the conferences playing out in 2018.

    South Africa
    Finishing order: Stormers, Lions, Jaguares, Sharks, Bulls.

    I always suspected the Stormers and Lions would be the strongest teams in South Africa this season, and having now seen both teams in action, I’ve only underlined that suspicion further.

    The Lions have lost a few players here and there – it still astounds me that they allowed Faf de Klerk to leave and kept Ross Cronje in his, but maybe that’s me – but the crux of their ide that reached the final last year is still there, and there’s a determination about the way they’re playing.

    The Stormers are playing a game in which everything they do in the middle channel is to set up for when they go wide, and whereby as soon as they get into the tramlines, they accelerate the exploit what any space may be there. Their speed men are out wide, and that’s where they’ll do the damage. Their trans-Tasman tour starting this weekend can set up their season.

    Of the other three, I’m entirely unenthused about the Bulls, the Sharks still look too inconsistent to me to be considered a side that can press for the finals, and I think same applies to the Jaguares, but with one major caveat.

    Already, the Mario Ledesma influence on the Jaguares’ scrum is coming through, and they certainly caused problems for the Stormers at Newlands on the weekend. But – and it’s as big a ‘but’ as they come – they must improve their discipline.

    Facundo Isa Jaguares Super Rugby 2016

    (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

    New Zealand
    Finishing order: Hurricanes, Crusaders, Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders.

    The Hurricanes and Crusaders look obvious top picks here, and I even think that whichever of the two doesn’t top the conference will finish as the top wildcard anyway. Even having just written that, I’m starting to have second thoughts about putting the ‘Canes first.

    But I needn’t. I still think 2018 will feel like the one that got away for the Hurricanes, and the off-season news that Chris Boyd has seen that the light at the end of his coaching tunnel doesn’t include a silver fern along the way, and will head to England instead gives the 2016 Champions a huge incentive to add another title to his record.

    Of course, though, the 2017 Champions can never be discounted, and I don’t think anyone with any sense would. I know you can’t read anything to much into the Brisbane Tens, but the talent on display two weeks ago, and knowing that plenty of them won’t see Super Rugby game time this year, just underlines what a crazy-good squad the Crusaders have.

    The only issue in predictions like these is that you have to put the teams in some kind of order, and in all honesty, I don’t think there’s much between the Blues, Chiefs and Highlanders at all this year. The Highlanders are a bit of an unknown with a new coach in place, and players moving on. He never got many headlines, but I reckon they miss Marty Banks incredibly, for instance. Someone has to be ranked fifth, and I just think it’s them at the moment.

    And that just leaves the Blues and Chiefs, which I could honestly a flip a coin between. How Damien McKenzie will go at 10 is the $64 question. The Blues similarly have issues at 10, with third choice Bryn Gatland likely to start there this weekend, but I’ve just got a funny the Blues are going to run very close this year.

    I just think there’s something about a side with Sonny Bill Williams, a couple of Ioanes, George Moala and Melani Nanai there.

    Sonny Bill Williams of the Blues makes a break during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Chiefs and Eden Park on May 26, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand.

    (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

    Finishing order: Waratahs, Brumbies, Rebels, Reds, Sunwolves.

    A week ago, I wasn’t thinking about the Waratahs topping the Australian conference, but a combination of the Brumbies and Rebels both stuttering through their trial games, and the ‘Tahs looking pretty slick in their outing last week pushes them ahead, I think.

    And frankly, they should be topping the conference with the squad they have. The return of Kurtley Beale and the recruitment of locks Rob Simmons and Tom Staniforth, and outside backs Curtis Rona and Alex Newsome will go a long way toward plugging the abundant gaps in their game last season. A team with that many players with international experience should be standing out at this level, and the Waratahs should embrace the pressure.

    The Brumbies are still well-placed, but the trials have highlighted that they’re still working on a few combinations. A Rob Valetini-Tom Cusack-Isi Naisarani backrow feels so obvious to me, yet I’m not completely confident that’s what will run out in Tokyo this Saturday. I could flip a coin for the no.10 jersey.

    The Brumbies aren’t far off, but I don’t think they’re quite the assumed conference-toppers they were thought to be just yet.

    And nor are the Rebels. With so much change in an organisation in so little time, it’s not entirely surprising that things haven’t quite clicked on the field as well as the training track. I thought they would be a big shot of topping the conference with the talent available, but I have wound that back a bit now they’ve played a few games – and I know you shouldn’t over react to trial results, but two 50-point losses are hard to ignore.

    Amanaki Mafi of the Rebels

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    I hope the Reds and Sunwolves both prove me wrong in placing them down the list, but it’s more a case of the unknown that drives it. We just don’t know how the Reds’ ‘all-in’ approach to backing youth will play out when it most matters, and it’s just hard to know anything about the Sunwolves, full stop.

    On paper, they certainly appear to have added some forward bulk, but the proof can only come when they run onto the field. The mighty Moondogs cannot afford another season battling in Super Rugby, and though I fear they might, I hope they don’t.

    The biggest change around Super Rugby is obviously the move back to three conferences, with which comes yet another Finals format. Fortunately, even the casual followers will be able to follow it this season, with the conference leaders occupying the top three spots and earning a home quarter-final, and then the next best five teams following in behind irrespective of where they’re from.

    The best of those five wildcard sides will claim the fourth and final home quarter-final. But who will they be?

    Well, I’ve already pencilled in the Crusaders as one, and the Lions and Brumbies will take two more. They seem reasonably obvious at this still-judging-off-named-squads stage. The last two spots are a little harder to pick.

    And that’s because I think the Jaguares, Blues, Rebels and probably the Chiefs will be fighting out for them and separating close teams becomes a gut-feel thing.

    I could make cases for all of them, but in the end, I just think the Jaguares and Rebels have too much to play for, and too much motivating pressure to not qualify this season. Both sides – as do the Blues and Chiefs, obviously – have too much talent to languish mid-table, and so I’m expecting 2018 to be their year.

    Wildcards (4th to eighth): Crusaders, Lions, Brumbies, Jaguares, Rebels.

    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 (214)

    • February 20th 2018 @ 6:08am
      Ringo said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:08am | ! Report

      The Lions would have loved to keep Faf De Klerk, but R21mil for three years service ‘up there’ kinda stopped that dream.

      On the finishing, Saders, Canes, A Gap, Lions, etc…

      Good to have you back, Mr McKay!

    • Roar Guru

      February 20th 2018 @ 6:15am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:15am | ! Report

      A bit early to be more specific Brett, but I think thr SA conference is going to be close and a little different than you expect.

      One thing I do agree on is the Lions will be kicked off their perch this season, but I don’t think the Stormers will win the conference.

      It might be early season loss of focus , but the Stormers nearly threw the game this weekend which suggests to me focus for 80 minutes will be their challenge.

      What was enlightning about the Sharks and Lions was the manner in which they hit back after being scored against, and that will be an important trait this season, especially against the NZ sides as you can’t have them score back to back tries. You will quickly fall behind.

      I have a sneaky suspicion the Bulls are going to surprise, John Mitchell in my view is the best coach in Super Rugby in SA, and he has expectations, and accepted a challenge to bring some much needed rugby intelligence to Pretoria,

      The Jaguares need to work on their discipline, I just don’t see them repeating the same ill disciplined season as last year. At some point you have to expect them to cop onto the fact that they cannot continue in the same manner as previous seasons.

      For me it is impossible to tell or predict the conference pecking order at this stage, but suffice to say Stormers are going to disappoint a lot of people, and the Lions too.

      • February 20th 2018 @ 6:50pm
        Mmmmm..k said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:50pm | ! Report







        Sanders to win the title again.

      • February 20th 2018 @ 6:56pm
        Baylion said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:56pm | ! Report

        Why would the Lions be “kicked off their perch”?

        • Roar Guru

          February 20th 2018 @ 7:01pm
          Corne Van Vuuren said | February 20th 2018 @ 7:01pm | ! Report

          I think Swys de Bruin is an inferior coach to Johan Ackerman, and I don’t think he will be able to get the same quality out of the squad as Ackerman

          • February 20th 2018 @ 7:17pm
            Baylion said | February 20th 2018 @ 7:17pm | ! Report

            Based on?

            • Roar Guru

              February 20th 2018 @ 7:30pm
              Corne Van Vuuren said | February 20th 2018 @ 7:30pm | ! Report

              What I saw in the Currie Cup last season.

              It is my opinion, you may disagree

              • February 20th 2018 @ 7:51pm
                Baylion said | February 20th 2018 @ 7:51pm | ! Report

                Difficult to judge yet as he hasn’t been head coach of a team in yonks although I don’t read much into the Currie Cup as he was looking for youngsters who could step up. Played a number of u20s and u19s during the course of the competition, tested combinations, etc.

                The Lions started the competition on the back foot as they were playing SR finals for the first 3 weeks and rested those players not with the Boks or overseas the 4th.

                Saturday’s game against the Sharks didn’t show that there was anything really to worry about but time will tell.

                The Lions coaching team is inexperienced at this level with Swys in his first HC job and Lemmer and Mongalo coming through from the juniors but they’ve all been in the Lions structures for a number of years and all levels at the Lions are coached in the same playing systems

              • February 20th 2018 @ 8:03pm
                Baylion said | February 20th 2018 @ 8:03pm | ! Report

                I don’t mind that the Lions are being written off as “having peaked in 2017” or as “tired” or for “having lost Ackers” or for whatever other reason. Every year so far since their return to SR they have been written off at the start of the season and it’s going to happen that they perform worse than the previous year at some point.

                Not this year though 🙂

    • February 20th 2018 @ 6:15am
      Daveski said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:15am | ! Report

      Cheers Brett, I won’t take any marks off for submitting your preview after Round 1… or was it Round 0.25?

      Couple of obvs:

      Was very impressed with Sharks when I managed to catch them play Racing in HK, they’ve got some serious backup talent like Bosch and April and I think they’ll have a good season.

      Agree about pace and Seabelo Senatla embodied their match on the weekend. He was great in the first thirty minutes but then dissapeared from the game and the Stormers totally failed to utilise him in the second half. It’s possible two Blitzbokke, he and Kwagga could be Springboks by season’s end.

      The Blues backline does look good – but then we say that every year.

      I’m not sold on my Tahs although I see on this site Brumbies and Reds fans rushing to anoint them favourites. They seem shallow in depth at second row, 7 and 8, half ( until Phipps returns from injury ) and in the centres. And I’m not sold on Gibson’s coaching although Simon Cron is a good addition.

      Actually think the Brumbies look good but yes they need to pick the right backrow and right 10-12.

      Rebels are really unknown. I think they might underwhelm the first half of the comp then start to come good as combinations improve and the best 23 become apparent. They’re Ma almost too many selection options at present.

      Reds already a mess. With Hunt out and now Perese gone for six weeks they might start Toua and Maranta at 15,14. A worry. Their forward pack is good and will need to be.

      Great to be talking rugby once more.

    • February 20th 2018 @ 6:17am
      Dan54 said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:17am | ! Report

      Yep Brett, find it hard to argue to strongly with your choices, especially as a Canes man. I tend to go along that only 1 New Zealand team will make make the wildcards this year, because it will be a very hard conference to pick up any extra wins. I really am most interested to see how Aus conference pans out this year, as you say Tahs look good, and will Rebels roster allow them to cause some problems at the top of conference? Also say again, the Sunwolves may decide the winner by picking up an upset win or two along the way, and that could help decide who wins pool. Saffas look like a Stormers/Lions battle, and if that Lions pack can keep sort out their early season lineout problems , with the scrum they showed could almost sneak iy again.

    • February 20th 2018 @ 6:41am
      Fionn said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      The Canes lost to the Chiefs twice last year, and the full-strength Crusaders.

      I just can’t see the Crusaders not topping it again. They were unreal last year, and this year young guys like Mounga and Goodgue are another year older and more experienced.

      • Roar Guru

        February 20th 2018 @ 9:58am
        Diggercane said | February 20th 2018 @ 9:58am | ! Report

        Brumbies put 50 on the Canes in 2016, seemed to work out all right in the end.

        Here is another straw clutcher, Crusaders were runners up in the 10s in 2017, that means the title this year is all ours! 🙂

        • February 20th 2018 @ 10:04am
          Fionn said | February 20th 2018 @ 10:04am | ! Report

          ‘Brumbies put 50 on the Canes in 2016, seemed to work out all right in the end.’

          Not for the Brumbies it didn’t… I dared to dream we were going back to 04 during that match, Digger. How wrong I was…

          I expect the Crusaders and Hurricanes will be the two best teams in the comp this year. Can’t see anyone beating them for the title at this point.

          • Roar Guru

            February 20th 2018 @ 10:11am
            Diggercane said | February 20th 2018 @ 10:11am | ! Report

            Haha, well, in the end who really knows.

            Certainly in NZ I would be loathe to discount the Chiefs or Highlanders and the Blues still have plenty of ability. Chiefs certainly if their halves come good are particularly threatning considering its essentially an AB pack and an outstanding midfield!

            • February 20th 2018 @ 10:20am
              Fionn said | February 20th 2018 @ 10:20am | ! Report

              And the Chiefs still have the best jerseys in Super Rugby also.

            • February 20th 2018 @ 10:23am
              Old Bugger said | February 20th 2018 @ 10:23am | ! Report

              Sshhhh Digsy……every tipster is quite right to discount the Chiefs so don’t tell ’em anymore puhlease….and, what AB pack and outstanding midfield are you talking about…..haha??

              • Roar Guru

                February 20th 2018 @ 11:12am
                Diggercane said | February 20th 2018 @ 11:12am | ! Report

                Oh puhlease, you boys aint hiding from me OB, haha!

          • Roar Guru

            February 20th 2018 @ 12:26pm
            The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 20th 2018 @ 12:26pm | ! Report

            Not for the Brumbies it didn’t… I dared to dream we were going back to 04 during that match, Digger. How wrong I was…

            Oh, I remember that match so well. Back then it actually was some Aussies in the regular crew watching rugby at Un Irish Pub in Chiang Mai. They hammered the Kiwis with banter about things are turning around, the golden period for the Kiwis was over, the Bledisloe will come “home”, and yada yada yada.

      • February 20th 2018 @ 11:26am
        Dan54 said | February 20th 2018 @ 11:26am | ! Report

        Have to agree with Fionn about Mounga and Goodhue, that extra years experience could be quite telling with these two talented young fellas. But as Canes man, I still live in hope and I honestly believe the Conference will be decided by, but not won by either The Blues or Clan, one of them will knock over Crusaders or Canes and might hurt whichever team’s chances.

    • Roar Guru

      February 20th 2018 @ 6:47am
      Harry Jones said | February 20th 2018 @ 6:47am | ! Report

      Let’s see the Bulls. Great early barometer coming up…

      But I do like how the young Stormers just beat a well-settled test side.

      • February 20th 2018 @ 5:22pm
        sean said | February 20th 2018 @ 5:22pm | ! Report

        Harry have you noticed how Fleckie changed tactics in the 2nd half.He used the backs more in the 1st half but then less so in the 2nd half and I wonder why that was.Senatla was quieter 2nd half so much so that I thought he’d gone off the field…Reckon the turning point was the scrum penalty JC won in our own 22 on 74 minutes,what do you make of that plus the fact that it was with 14 men aswell?Also was gonna ask if DW our 10 is too predictable or will become too predictable with his one-step inside move.Sooner or later the Kiwis are gonna work him out and set up better to shut him down,what do you reckon?Also what’s our chances on tour 1/3 or 0/3…

        • Roar Guru

          February 20th 2018 @ 8:04pm
          Harry Jones said | February 20th 2018 @ 8:04pm | ! Report

          Sean, yes, I think we ”shut up the shop” much too early, when we should have kept peddle to metal. Kitshoff going off too early (Jaguares couldn’t stop his charges) didn’t help. Then, I think that scrum was huge, yes. Oddly enough, DdeA scrummed well! Hahahaha! All in all, good first outing. Damian Willemse will improve in vision/reading the game. He is as fast as BBBBB. Let’s see.

          On tour: one win, two losing BP would probably set us up fine.

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