The South African Super Rugby conference has a slightly different feel about it this season, but even without some of the names that have left each team, I can’t help but feel that every side bar perhaps one will be a dangerous prospect in 2019.
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To go deep into a Super Rugby finals series, there’s more than an element of luck involved.
However, there are some factors under a team’s control that really come in handy.
Good home record
In a competition where travelling almost always involves a multi-hour flight, winning at home is the best way to make up for any games dropped on the road.
The last four champions have shown that taking advantage of your opponents’ extra travel is as much a factor in success as touring well.
The Waratahs exemplified this in 2014, winning eight of eight Sydney games in the lead-up to their successful finals series.
Likewise, the Highlanders won six of their eight fixtures in Dunedin in 2015, the Hurricanes won six from seven a year later, and the Crusaders made a clean sweep of matches in Christchurch last year.
The saying goes that the game is won in the forwards, while the backs only decide how many, but that phrase misrepresents the big impact the halves have on a game.
I struggle to think of a winning team with a poor halfback and flyhalf.
Our friends in New Zealand like to stress the importance of a first-five ‘production line’, and they’re not far wrong.
When NSW won the championship, in 2014, they had the pairing of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley at the height of their powers.
The Otago side in 2015 had Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga – remembering of course, that while Sopoaga played ITM Cup last October and just a friendly against the French Barbarians in June, at that point he was a regular All Blacks starter.
The Canes in 2016 had the same halves they have now, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, which is a big thumbs up as far as competing for the title goes.
Last year’s Crusaders picked and chose with Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond at halfback, but Richie Mo’unga held down first five for most of the year.
The stability teams show in the halves will surely benefit them come this weekend. Elton Jantjies is one particular player in something of a rut, and you could argue that it reflects his team’s success.
High-ranking after regular season
This ties in somewhat with the previous point, in that it’s extremely difficult to win a final away from home.
Only twice in 22 seasons has a side finishing lower than second won a fina – Crusaders in 1999 and the Highlanders in 2015.
In fact, it’s even difficult to qualify for a final without finishing in the top two: since 2014 only the Highlanders have managed to get in from outside those places – sorry Tahs and Jaguares fans, doesn’t look like it this year.
Using those three points as a guide, who are favourites?
The Chiefs have the home record, and a reasonable ranking, but do they have the halves? The Landers have only lost one at home, with a proved halves pairing, but have an unflattering ranking of six. The Waratahs have the ranking – albeit gifted to them by the conference system – but their home record is lacking.
While many are calling Super Rugby as being already won by the Crusaders, it still looks firmly up in the air.