Everybody loves a good 21st birthday and this year we all have the privilege of being invited to celebrate the 21st year of Super Rugby which gets underway on Thursday 23 February.
The haters gonna hate and the players gonna play. Say what you will about the expanded format of the competition – for me it is beyond exciting. Eight to nine matches per week means that you need not have to go to fancy dinners or go to the films to find love – you can just park off on the couch in your PJs or head to a pub with some mates and indulge all weekend long.
As an early gift, I will take a brief look at each team, highlighting some key points and giving my five cents worth. I will break it up into two parts, looking at nine teams each time in alphabetical order.
Once the dominant force in the competition with titles in 1996, 1997 and 2003, the Blues are perhaps the squad I am most excited to see in action this season. Under Tana Umaga, the Blues are targeting a resurgence and boast an electric squad. All Blacks Sonny Bill Williams and Augustine Pulu are their biggest signings, whilst the Ioane brothers (Akira and Rieko) are arguably two of the most lethal ball runners in world rugby.
Superstar: Rieko Ioane
Watch him: Melani Nanai
Strengths: Midfield and loose forwards
Like the Blues, the Bulls were once a dynasty, winning three titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010. The Bulls have experienced some tough times of late in Super Rugby, losing many top players to overseas clubs. The big news is Handre Pollard’s return, coupled with Lood de Jager’s move up from the Cheetahs. Also, Adriaan Strauss is still around, he no longer has Bok commitments so perhaps a refreshed and relatively stress free Strauss could see the Vanilla Gorilla return to his best to ignite the Pretoria lads.
Superstar: Handre Pollard
Watch him: Roelof Smit (upon return from injury)
Strengths: Depth in key positions (hooker, lock, loose forward, halfback, midfield)
Weakness: They playing New Zealand sides
Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Matt Toomua, Joe Tomane and Christian Leali’ifano – five world class players who the Brumbies have lost. Two Wallaby captains and between the five of them they have 252 Test caps. I don’t care who you are, those kind of losses will leave a gaping hole in any side. Making it even worse is that Argentinean scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli (58 Test caps) has been ruled out for most of the season. 2017 will be a tough one for Stephen Larkham’s troops and I would not expect much from a team who otherwise have a superb Super Rugby track record.
Superstar: Henry Speight
Watch him: Kyle Godwin
Strengths: Nothing to lose, they pack the element of surprise
Weakness: Unknown halfback combination
They were poor in Super Rugby, but they did win the Currie Cup. The young Free Staters are known for playing an attractive brand of running rugby, however their Achilles heel at this level has always been their defence. They have a settled lineup, with Maks van Dyk and Lood de Jager the only significant losses. They are a promising side who will catch a few teams off guard as they tackle the New Zealand conference this season.
Superstar: Francois Venter
Watch him: Ox Nche
Strengths: Flair and pace. They have a potent attack that can strike from anywhere
Weakness: The aforementioned defensive consistency
They have perhaps been the most dominant side in the competition this decade and lost out to the eventual winners, the Hurricanes, in last year’s semi-finals. Seta Tamanivalu is the major outgoing player, however they have managed to sign back Tim Nanai-Williams who is one of the silkiest backs in Super Rugby. Charlie Ngatai’s concussion battles continue, but rugby fans all over are holding thumbs for his return. The Chiefs won the Brisbane 10s in February as they laid down a marker for what should be a stellar year for a team destined to be a serious title contender.
Superstar: Damian McKenzie
Watch him: Anton Lienert-Brown
Strengths: They have heaps of players who know how to win big games
Weakness: Post match function shenanigans
The most successful team in Super Rugby history has not won a trophy since 2008, although I feel they are a good bet to secure their first silverware in the post McCaw and Carter era this year. Richie Mo’unga had a stellar 2016 in both Super Rugby and Mitre 10 Cup. He will be pulling the strings in a Crusaders backline that features Ryan Crotty, Seta Tamanivalu and Israel Dagg. Plus they have all the regular hardened farmer type forwards like Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Owen Franks, Matt Todd and Wyatt Crockett. Although the absence of Nemani Nadolo, Robbie Fruean, Johnny McNicholl and Andy Ellis will be felt.
Superstar: Israel Dagg
Watch him: Jordan Taufua
Strengths: Tight five and set pieces
Weakness: Consistent goal kicking
Not much to say here. This Western Australian side is yet to become much in this competition and 2017 will once again see them fighting for scraps. Other than Dane Haylett-Petty, not much stands out in the Force side and they should not cause too many issues for other sides.
Superstar: Dane Haylett-Petty
Watch him: Adam Coleman
Strengths: Loose forwards
Weakness: No real match winners and a lack of depth
2015 champions and losing semi-finalists in 2016 – The Highlanders are up there with the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes as favourites to win this year’s event. No major changes to the ‘Landers setup, barring the upgrade from Assistant to Head Coach for Tony Brown upon Jamie Joseph’s departure to Japan. They are a powerful side, with one helluva vibe – just check out their YouTube channel.
Superstar: Waisake Naholo
Watch him: Rob Thompson
Strengths: Joe Wheeler’s banter and Lashes (Sam Casey – Highlanders TV host)
Weakness: Aaron Smith’s social media presence
Victor Vito, Willis Halaholo, James Marshall and Jason Woodward all played key roles in their victorious 2016 campaign and their presence will no doubt be missed. Vaea Fifita’s injury in the Brisbane 10s should not worry them too much as they still have Blade Thomson and Brad Shields in the mix. If Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara stay fit, they ought to be unstoppable. Littered with quality All Blacks, this is the team to beat in 2017.
Superstar: Beauden Barrett
Watch him: Jordie Barrett
Strengths: They have arguably world’s best hooker, openside, scrum half and flyhalf.
Weakness: They don’t have all the Barrett brothers