Cape Town – Crusaders for the overall title. Sharks to rule the South African roost. Richie Mo’unga as likely most valuable player. Damian Willemse the hottest young stepper closer to home.
Those seem the most consistent take-outs from Sport 24’s deep gaze into the Super Rugby 2018 crystal ball, even if there isn’t unanimous agreement on all counts.
Compiled by Rob Houwing, fellow Sport24 gurus Garrin Lambley, Lloyd Burnard and Herman Mostert also weigh in with their answers to these five burning questions ...
Which team will win Super Rugby 2018?
Houwing: So hard to look beyond the Crusaders, who won last year’s title supposedly a season too early! If this is their “even bigger push” year, they may prove some sort of Manchester City-like runaways. They have a settled squad, whereas other big NZ sides like the Chiefs and Hurricanes have experienced more in the way of recent upheaval.
Lambley: Crusaders. No need to look any further than the defending champions. Loaded with All Blacks in key positions, bank on a ninth title for the men from Christchurch.
Burnard: Hurricanes ... because of Beauden Barrett. It will be a Kiwi team again, and the ‘Canes and Crusaders will lead the charge once more.
Mostert: Crusaders. They finally broke their nine-year duck by winning last year and have been moulded into a championship-winning side by the astute Scott Robertson. They are also the franchise with the strongest depth in New Zealand rugby - evidenced by Canterbury and Tasman (both part of the franchise) contesting the finals of the Mitre10 Cup for the past two editions.
Who will win the SA conference?
Houwing: Sharks ... and yes, mindful that I have tipped them before and received egg between the eyeballs. I believe they have the broadest depth of talent, even if tighthead prop presents a substantial problem. With two runners-up spots in succession and a slight surrender in playing staff this year, I can’t fathom why the Lions haven’t tried to make any really keynote signings in a bid to go one step better.
Lambley: Stormers. The last time Super Rugby comprised 15 teams it was the men from the Cape who took SA bragging rights. They’ll do likewise this time around.
Burnard: I’m feeling good about the Sharks this year. I like the look of their backline, in particular, while they also have the muscle up front.
Mostert: Sharks. The Lions are most pundits’ favourites but with a new coach and few new player additions they may struggle to reach the heights of the last two years. I feel the Sharks have developed into a well-oiled unit under Robert du Preez and they boast impressive depth - just look at the number of acquisitions in recent months.
Team (tourney-wide) who might surprise a few people?
Houwing: Hmm, Rebels? The Melbourne crew have been significant beneficiaries of the unforgivable binning of the Force, snapping up players like lineout dynamo Adam Coleman and the two Haylett-Pettys. They won only one match last year ... that will at least be improved upon!
Lambley: Blues. Perennial wooden-spoonists in the New Zealand conference, look for Tana Umaga’s men to upset their more fancied opponents in 2018. How bad can a team with star wing Rieko Ioane be?
Burnard: Easy answer here is the Bulls; I expect them to improve under John Mitchell. (They can’t get any worse.) I still don’t back the Jaguares or Sunwolves to ruffle any feathers.
Mostert: I’ve got a feeling the Australian contingent will prove much stronger now that they have dropped one team (Force). The last few seasons proved that Australian rugby did not have the depth to field five teams. Their strength will be less diluted this year and don’t be surprised if the Rebels, Reds and Waratahs - the great benefactors of the Force’s demise - notch a few surprise wins.
Which individual do you fancy will eventually prove 2018 ‘MVP’?
Houwing: Beauden Barrett ... the original knife through warm butter, which makes him so suited to Super Rugby carnage on attack. He turns 27 in May; enjoy him at his rugby prime for the Hurricanes.
Lambley: Richie Mo’unga. Following the departures to more lucrative pastures of Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga, Mo’unga has an All Black jersey within his grasp. Look for him to marshal the Crusaders’ backline to glory.
Burnard: Take your pick! So much talent on offer across the New Zealand franchises that it could be anyone. But let’s go for Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie.
Mostert: Richie Mo’unga was not the most talked-about flyhalf in last year’s competition, but he proved vital in the Crusaders’ title run. If they defend their title like I predicted, he will again prove instrumental.
SA player you fancy to make his big breakthrough this year?
Houwing: Not a total rookie, but I’ll go Kwagga Smith. The former SA Sevens favourite is fully committed to the Lions this year, and benefits straight away from Jaco Kriel’s absence at the outset by starting at open-side against the Sharks on Saturday. His linking, tearaway sprinting and ball-pinching will make him a thrill machine.
Lambley: Damian Willemse. With a lack of depth in the flyhalf position, the Stormers’ title hopes could well rest on the shoulders of the 19-year-old. Should he pass with flying colours, the future is bright for the former Paul Roos prodigy.
Burnard: Big year for Damian Willemse at the Stormers, but I will also be watching Bulls scrumhalf Embrose Papier with keen interest given how highly John Mitchell rates him.
Mostert: Damian Willemse. He showed glimpses of brilliance during last year’s Currie Cup and must now carry that into Super Rugby. He will be vital to the Stormers’ cause, especially with Robert du Preez leaving for the Sharks and Jean-Luc du Plessis still injured.
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