Powerhouse Kiwis still the teams to beat as Super Rugby enters new era
Japan’s Sunwolves and Argentina’s Jaguares are debutants in a rejigged competition that also sees South Africa’s complement rise to six teams
Super Rugby enters a brave new world when it embarks on its 21st season on Friday but despite expansion into new markets in South America and Asia, it is a fair bet the trophy will be heading back to New Zealand for the 14th time in early August.
The competition’s 18 teams, up from 15 last year, are now spread over four continents with 18,000km separating Tokyo, home of the new Sunwolves outfit, and Buenos Aires, where Argentina’s debutant Jaguares are based.
South Africa’s complement rises to six teams with the return of the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, and the resultant rejig of the competition’s structure, with Africa and Australasian groups and four conferences, will take some getting used to.
What fans can still expect, however, is plenty of fast-paced rugby and a torrent of tries, more so now that the try-scoring bonus point requires teams to outscore their opponents by three five-pointers. The southern hemisphere’s dominance of international rugby was illustrated when New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina occupied the four semi-final spots at last year’s World Cup. Europe still dominates in the money stakes, however, and it remains to be seen if the cash from broadcast deals negotiated around the new Super Rugby structure can help stem the drain of playing talent northwards.
Argentina will have their first chance to shine on the regional provincial stage when the Jaguares take on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday, while the Sunwolves make their debut on Saturday in Tokyo against South Africa’s Lions.
Expansion teams have always struggled and that looks likely to be the case again this year given the Sunwolves only appointed coach Mark Hammett in December and were unable to secure some of the key Japan national team players.
Hammett remains confident the team will make their mark in their first season.
“Everyone is excited but a little bit nervous,” he said. “Super Rugby is the hardest competition in the world but in saying that we need to bring our Sunwolves style of rugby and develop it over the coming months.”
Australia’s youngest Super Rugby side, the Melbourne Rebels, are mindful of the struggles expansion teams face in joining the world’s toughest club rugby competition.
“The one thing certainly that we know is that it is not easy to put together a franchise and be successful from the get-go and have that consistency and ability because it is a big shock,” said Rebels coach Tony McGahan, who will guide the team into a third season.
“The travel, the organising, the logistics of what a Super competition brings as opposed to a lot of rugby competitions which are essentially just domestic – there will be a lot of learnings there.”
The Kings faced a player strike and had to be bailed out by the South African Rugby Union to ensure their return after their one previous season of Super Rugby in 2013.
If you are looking for potential title winners you could do worse than take in Friday’s Australasian double header when the Auckland Blues host the Wellington Hurricanes before the ACT Brumbies take on the reigning champion Otago Highlanders.
The Highlanders and Hurricanes were the standout teams of last season and the final was a brilliant contest filled with top quality rugby played at a scorching pace.
After front-running for much of the season, the Hurricanes faltered in the final couple of steps but should be among the contenders from the off.
The Highlanders triumphed last year but might find it more difficult with a target on their back from day one.
The twice champion Brumbies have retained a strong squad and, along with the 2014 title- winning New South Wales Waratahs, look to be Australia’s best hopes.
South Africa got what it wanted from the new format with a sixth team and shortened tours of Australasia but Springboks continue to head north, weakening their franchises.
The Lions have had more stability than most and appear to have the best chance of becoming the first South African champions since the Bulls won their third title in 2010.