You could be forgiven for thinking it’s too early to be predicting Super Rugby 2019 when, really, Christmas is a fading memory and we’re only just into the new year.
You’d be wrong, though. This very month the Hamilton 7s kicks off, with the newly relocated Sydney 7s beginning six days later, meaning that we’re halfway through the off-season.
Super Rugby 2018 was fascinating. While the end result – a Crusaders grand final victory – was predicted by most in February, what happened during the 19 rounds was a far cry from what punters expected.
The change back to the 15-team format employed from 2011 to 2015 was a successful one, with SANZAAR removing three perennial strugglers in the Kings, Cheetahs and Force. Though the move alienated fans of the respective teams, it lifted the standards of the tournament overall and created a more equal outcome.
Though the inclusion of the Sunwolves and Jaguares came at the expense of the Cheetahs and Force, improvements were shown from the outsiders, as the Argentines qualified for their first finals series and the Japanese won more games and accumulated more points than ever before.
Super Rugby is a big competition, encompassing 15 teams and spanning multiple time zones, making it very difficult to pay full attention to every team, especially if new year resolutions say something about more family time, so let’s take a look at who you should focus on and who you should leave to a one-off late night.
Team to watch: Brumbies
Team to ignore: Sunwolves
Dan McKellar’s Brumbies mightn’t have reached the finals in 2018, pinned down by a 4-4 home record, but wins over the Hurricanes and Bulls on tour demonstrated what they’re capable of.
The Canberrans lost Ben Alexander, Robbie Abel, Richie Arnold, Isi Naisarani and James Dargaville in the off-season but gained the unwanted James Slipper from the Reds, Pete Samu and Toni Pulu.
McKellar’s ‘running rugby’ plan, a plan whereby their attack doesn’t rely on lineouts in good field position to score – it’s a plan so different to what we’ve come to expect from the ACT side – hasn’t come to fruition yet, but an increase in tries scored, from 43 in 2017 to 56 in 2018, will give him some confidence.
If you’re looking for potential finals contenders to focus on this year, you will likely take every Sunwolves game as a chance to stretch the legs before more important games hit your TV screen.
The Japanese side finished 14th on the try-scoring sheet, with their tally of 48 just beating the defensive-minded Stormers with 46 but being slightly more than half of the Crusaders’ total of 90.
They don’t look like world-beaters just yet, but smashing the Reds, drop-kicking their way to victory against the Stormers and outlasting the Bulls will have teams on their toes – just ask the Blues.
While their XV has some serious power in it, especially in a talent-laden back row – think Michael Leitch at blindside or No.8, Sean McMahon as openside, Dan Pryor and Hendrik Tui in the mix as well – for three years their team has been less than the sum of its parts, so don’t get too excited yet.
So, Roarers, let me know what you think. Am I being too harsh on the Sunwolves? Too generous about the Brumbies?