Cape Town - The circus that is Super Rugby returns this weekend, and of
course this year's tournament has particular intrigue surrounding it thanks to
the presence of the Rugby World Cup in a few months' time.
international players will be heavily managed by their unions, which could lend
an even greater air of unpredictability to proceedings than usual.
The first round is always a bit of a lottery, but here's our
stab in the dark at what might occur this weekend.
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FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13
Crusaders v Rebels, Christchurch - 08:35
On paper this is easy - the Crusaders came within a last
minute penalty of winning the competition last year, while the Rebels were left
languishing at the bottom of the table. However, the Crusaders have endured a
torrid pre-season in which they haven't won a game and were most recently
pumped by the Reds. They are also without several of their All Blacks, as they
are gradually introduced into the season over the coming rounds. The Rebels
have no such issues - but also don't have anywhere near the level of depth.
Surprisingly, the winning margin in this fixture has never been higher than six
- that probably won't change this weekend.
Prediction: Crusaders by 5
Brumbies v Reds, Canberra - 10:40
The Reds had a bitterly disappointing 2014 season, finishing
third from bottom on the overall log. Their pre-season suggests things might
change this year, but you can never really tell until the season proper starts.
They are without play-makers Quade Cooper and returning pantomime villain James
O'Connor, so much responsibility falls on the shoulders of Will Genia. The
Brumbies have pretty much a full roster to choose from, and much intrigue will
surround David Pocock, who seems to have come through pre-season unscathed. Can
he remain injury free? He could be the man to push the Brumbies from a nearly
team, to actual champions.
Prediction: Brumbies by 6
Lions v Hurricanes, Johannesburg - 19:10
In contrast to other Kiwi franchises, the Hurricanes are
expected to have most of their All Blacks available to them in Johannesburg.
The likes of Conrad Smith, Beauden Barrett and Ben Franks are likely to start,
which will give them a much stronger line-up on paper. The game isn't played on
paper, however, and Ellis Park is as intimidating a venue as they come. The
Lions love to cause an upset there, led by Warren Whitely and with the
consistent Marnitz Boshoff ready to punish any indiscretions. They are a tough
nut to crack, but the Hurricanes do have an excellent record against them,
having not lost since 2007 in this fixture. It'll be immensely close but that
should remain the same this weekend.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 3
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14
Blues v Chiefs, Auckland - 08:35
The Chiefs have become something of a bogey team for the
Blues, having not beaten their New Zealand rivals since 2011. Both sides will
be without some of their New Zealand contingent, although Sonny Bill Williams
is expected to start for the Chiefs with Hosea Gear also likely to feature in a
super-sized back-line. The Blues have a younger but no less threatening
back-line, with the precociously talented Ihaia West directing a back-line that
includes flyers like Tevita Li and Frank Halai. No doubt it'll be a typically
high-scoring derby game, of that we can be sure, but picking a winner is much
more difficult. Despite their poor record in this fixture, home advantage might
just swing it for the Blues.
Prediction: Blues by 2
Sharks v Cheetahs, Durban - 17:05
Two years ago the Cheetahs stunned the Sharks with a
smash-and-grab 12-6 win in Durban - can they pull that off again? They play
them at a good time, with key individuals like Frans Steyn, Ryan Kankowski and
JP Pietersen still out in Japan, and a handful of other big names out with
injury. The Cheetahs themselves face a rebuilding season with captain and
inspiration Adriaan Strauss now at the Bulls, and fly-half Johan Goosen plying
his trade in France. It will be a tight game, but the Sharks' greater strength
in depth will likely shine through.
Prediction: Sharks by 7
Bulls v Stormers, Pretoria - 19:10
The Stormers will be looking to get off to a fast start and
erase memories of last season, which saw them stutter out of the blocks with
six losses in their first seven games, a sequence that left them rooted to the
foot of the table until round 14. The Bulls fared marginally better, but in the
end managed only the same number of wins as their opponents. Both sides were
amongst the lowest try scorers in the tournament (neither averaged more than
two per game) so don't expect fireworks from this one. It will likely come down
to whose behemoth pack is in bigger beast mode, and whose kicker is in better
form. The Loftus factor might decide it in the end.
Prediction: Bulls by 3
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15
Waratahs v Force, Sydney - 07:05
The weekend is rounded off by last season's champions, who
face a tricky season of everyone gunning to knock them off their pedestal. They
have their squad intact and, crucially, Wallaby coach Michael Cheika still at
the helm for one last season. The Force were brilliantly unpredictable last
season, led by inspirational figures like the Honey Badger and captain Matt
Hodgson to finish just two points off a play-off spot. In reality, it's highly
unlikely they'll do so well again, but you can be certain the Waratahs won't be
underestimating them. The Badge isn't back from Japan yet, and Hodgson is
sidelined until late in the tournament with a hamstring injury. Against the
Waratahs and their array of Wallaby superstars in Sydney, this could be the
biggest margin of the weekend.
Prediction: Waratahs by 15
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