“My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
With the 2019 Super Rugby season fast approaching, let’s take a look at the remainder of the competition – the New Zealand and South Africa conferences.
You can read the first part of my preview, looking at the Australian conference, here.
Team to watch: Jaguares
Team to ignore: Bulls
The Jaguares qualified for their first-ever finals series in 2018 and things seem to be on the up for a club that has only three years under its belt.
The Argentines lose 50-test veteran Lenardo Senatore, while flyhalves Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez head to Stade Francais and retire respectively. There’s also a change in the coaching department, with Mario Ledesma taking the reins at the national level so former France assistant Gonzalo Quesada can slide into the role.
A 5-3 record at home doesn’t flatter the team, which should have the biggest fortress in the competition in terms of travel, but to their credit the Argentines beat all four of their South African rivals at home, levering them into second in the conference.
The stat that would give fans the most hope is their four-game winning streak on both sides of the Tasman, knocking over the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs within three weeks.
Traditionally Argentina teams are scrummaging powerhouses, so a competition-low 85 per cent winning rate in 2018 will come as a concern.
On paper the Bulls’ three titles might make them a very successful Super Rugby team, but since their 2013 second-place finish they’ve come ninth three times and fell to 15th in 2017 and 12th last year.
An edgy 21-19 upset over an out-of-sorts Hurricanes in Round 1 was their only claim to fame in 2018, a year that included a loss to the Sunwolves and thrashings by the Jaguares and Lions.
Since last season they’ve lost hooker Adriaan Strauss’s 66 tests of experience, not to mention losing head coach John Mitchell.
A successful 2019 isn’t off the cards for the Bulls, but finishing the year with a winning record under a new coach who will be under pressure from the get-go is unlikely at best.
Team to watch: Hurricanes, Highlanders, Crusaders, Chiefs
Team to ignore: Blues
Hurricanes, Highlanders, Crusaders, Chiefs
In each of the last three years these four teams have qualified for the finals. It hasn’t been since 2015, before SANZAAR opted an 18-team format and when just six play-off positions were used, that the throng of clubs didn’t all qualify thanks to the Crusaders finishing a close seventh.
The Hurricanes clinched their first-ever trophy in 2016, the Crusaders added to their cabinet with back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018 and the Chiefs won through to the semi-finals on two occasions, just missing out in 2018.
Let’s not forget our neighbours from the south. While their success has been a bit limited – as far as limited goes for New Zealand teams – with just one semi-finals appearance since their 2015 grand final win, they were very close to knocking over a Waratahs unit in Sydney in July.
The Landers’ biggest struggle will likely be the No.10 jersey, vacated by Lima Sopoaga. Fletcher Smith and his ten caps head north to the Canes, meaning one of Bryn Gatland, Marty Banks or Josh Ioane will have to step up.
Ah, the Blues. The poor cousins of the remaining New Zealand teams, leaving loyal fans to fantasise over Auckland’s success, Sonny Bill Williams’s short move south from the Chiefs a couple of years ago and Ma’a Nonu’s extremely southward move from Toulon.
In 2018 they were the only New Zealand team to lose to an Aussie team at home, losing to the Rebels in June, and were ranked second-last, finishing above only the Sunwolves.
A backline that boasts Rieko Ioane is the shining light in an otherwise struggling franchise, and while reaching the finals for the first time since 2011 is never impossible, Blues fans won’t be holding their breath.