With Super Rugby just a matter of days away, although it’s only mid-January, these are the entities that need to hit the ground running.
Super Rugby as a whole
It’s a big year for this competition. Despite coming off one of the most exciting seasons in recent history – with a flip-of-the-coin South African conference, a resurgent Australian group, and a typically entertaining New Zealand pool – crowds continued to fall while TV audiences saw no improvement.
This year is important. Question marks remain over the tournament’s future and over its value to broadcasters. This edition is the final one of the current broadcast deal, where it’ll have to impress broadcasters ahead of next year. There will be much less content in 2021, going from an 18-week regular season down to 13, with the total number of games falling from 127 to 96.
That being said, next year will see the end of the unpopular conference system, as well as the axing of the woeful Sunwolves. So with a competitive season, SANZAAR’s product will look a lot better.
The newly appointed coach of the Waratahs has got a challenge ahead of him in Australia’s biggest rugby market with a brand new halves pairing.
Early signs are good. He’s signed up former league player Phil Bailey and nabbed Jack Maddocks from the Rebels, which frees up Kurtley Beale to play fly half instead of the under-experienced Mack Mason.
It’s also a very young squad – although not entirely unrecognisable – with only two members remaining from the 2014 championship-winning team.
He can file this year under the rebuilding tag if it all goes wrong, but I doubt NSW Rugby will accept that excuse after a second season.
It’s all very well to go alright at a World Cup, but if O’Connor wants to nail down a spot in the Wallabies, he’ll have to perform consistently in a Reds jumper.
The Reds flex a fairly strong back line with Filipo Daugunu, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Henry Speight and Jordan Petaia. O’Connor will have his work cut out for him just holding down a spot at a Super Rugby level.
With the Lions, Stormers and Rebels breathing down their neck, the Highlanders snuck into the 2019 finals series by a solitary point.
They’ll be hard pushed to find that kind of success this time around, having lost a number of their core players in the off-season. A player exodus to the northern hemisphere is nothing new, especially post-World Cup, but the Otago-based team are probably the most affected this year.
Aaron Mauger’s team will say goodbye to more than 500 games worth of experience. Ben Smith, Luke Whitelock and Waisake Naholo headline the list of departing players, with Marty Banks, Elliot Dixon and Tevita Li also leaving.
In 2019 they took the penultimate spot in their conference, and with the continued rise of the Blues, they could be at risk of coming last in 2020.