Beauden Barrett’s back, his brother and Sam Cane aren’t, and the general consensus seems to be that the Chiefs and Blues will both win this weekend.
But let’s just stop there for a moment to appreciate how nice it is to write a sentence like that again. Because it means rugby is back.
Live rugby. With crowds. Big, proper ones. And broadcasters. An Australian one too.
We haven’t exactly been starved of goings-on in the sport over the past few months: we’ve had a letter, a CEO resigning, a new
chairman appointed board member resigning, a new interim CEO (same as the old COO), an actual new chairman, three Reds running away, the return of the Force, no broadcast deal a new broadcast deal signed just in time, a farewell for the Sunwolves, rule changes, and a private equity firm having a chat to Rugby Australia. Which, while they were certainly worthy of discussion, they didn’t mean we were talking about actual rugby.
We also had some on-field-related (albeit slightly manufactured) things to keep us entertained: picking the next Wallabies team, picking the best-ever Wallabies team (of the last 25 years), and watching classic Tests and Super Rugby matches. Which, while they were fun, weren’t brand-new live rugby matches to predict, watch and review.
So you’ll need to forgive me for going on this tangent which has no other point than to say that rugby is back, and that’s worth celebrating.
The sport’s return means we get to ask how much of an impact Sam Cane’s absence will affect the Chiefs, how much of a spark Beauden Barrett will provide the Blues, whether a big home crowd will give the Highlanders a boost, and whether the Hurricanes can win without Jordie Barrett able to line up against his brother.
All prickly propositions. Round 1 tipping is never easy at the start of any competition, let alone when we’re coming off a three-month layoff caused by a global pandemic.
Nevertheless, the answers are (or, rather, might be): a bit, a big one, it will but not enough, and no.
The Chiefs looked awfully dangerous prior to the COVID-enforced Super Rugby cancellation. They stumbled in Round 7 with a three-point loss to the Hurricanes and had an earlier slip-up against an excellent Brumbies side, but the Aaron Cruden-Damien McKenzie playmaking axis gave them one of the most dangerous attacks in the comp – although Cruden will start tomorrow’s game from the bench.
Cane will miss the Super Rugby Aotearoa opener with a back injury. A significant loss, but one dulled by the excellent early-season form of Lachlan Boshier. Watching the Chiefs through march, you’d be forgiven for assuming Boshier is the All Blacks regular in the back-row. He’ll have an increased workload with club and country captain Cane out, one he’s entirely capable of carrying.
With only one win from five matches, the Highlanders were comfortably the worst of the New Zealand franchises in 2020 – not a surprise, given how hard the post-World Cup exodus hit them.
Aaron Mauger has reshuffled his side for the season re-start. Regular flyhalf Mitch Hunt moves to fullback, Josh Ioane shifts into the no.10 jersey, and the uncapped Sam Gilbert starts on the right wing. The club did, of course, sign Nehe Milner-Skudder last month, but the fleet-footed outside back is still a number of weeks away from playing as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
A big crowd will be on the Highlanders’ side – some 16,000 tickets have been sold at the time of writing – but there’s not a hell of a lot else going for the home team in this one. Pencil the Chiefs in for a win.
There’s hardly a rugby writer who wasn’t thinking of how to work “Battle of the Barretts” into a headline or lede about Sunday’s game between the Blues and Hurricanes, but we’ll have to hold off on that moniker for a little while longer, with Jordie to miss the clash against the Blues, which doubles as brother Beauden’s first game for his new franchise.
The younger of the two had been one of the players of the competition, his kicking, playmaking and defence helping him find career-best form at fullback. The Hurricanes wouldn’t have won four of their six games without him, so Jordie’s absence is a big one.
Still, there’s enough depth in the team to offer a stern test to the Blues, but it’s hard to go past the Auckland side in this one.
Barrett was touted as the main difference-maker for them heading into the year, even if he wasn’t scheduled to make his club and season debut until April. So when the Blues went ahead and won more games than any other New Zealand side without their star signing (admittedly the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders all played one game less), it was a bit of a surprise, and a clear indication Leon MacDonald had his side humming.
Ordinarily, you’d say Barrett will take a little time to get back up to speed. It’s been more than seven months since he last played a game of rugby (the third-placed playoff at the Rugby World Cup), but with everyone else coming off a three-month break, any flecks of rust on the flyhalf will be nicely camouflaged.
One last word on the Blues: I know he’s 38, and no one’s expecting him to play at his peak – or, in fact, at all for a few weeks. But if you guys could go ahead and start both Barrett and Dan Carter together just so we can say we’ve seen it, that’d be great.
Those are my tips, and Geoff, Nobes and Harry are both on the same page. Brett’s going with the home sides on the back of a couple of big home crowds, while Digger has, of course, tipped the Canes by plenty.
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Get your own crowd tips in as well; we’re still running Super Rugby tipping for the rest of the year, which will include the first six rounds of the 15-team comp, and all of Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU.