It is going to be a very competitive Super 15 this year, certainly among the New Zealand teams. There are good reasons for predicting any one of the five to come through at the end. The Chiefs and Crusaders remain strong, and may get stronger, but the Highlanders, Blues and Hurricanes have all improved since 2013.
The Crusaders lost their opening two games, but have no need to panic. It is almost a Crusader tradition to start slowly. In 1998 when I was there, the team was last after the first five rounds of the competition and came through at the end.
One reason for some teams starting slowly can be the complexity of what you are trying to do. The teams with more simple game plans often start well and fade. Other teams have bigger play books as they don’t want to be predictable to opposition coaches, and so it can take a while for the players to take everything in. Clutter often looks like sluggishness in early season games.
The one thing that surprised me about the Crusaders in their match against the Blues was how they struggled mentally when the pressure came on. They may fix some of that through selection, bringing back proven players like Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg. They also have a very good mental skills coach down there at the moment who will be working full-time on this aspect.
The Blues also now have to front up on the road. Playing teams like the Lions and the Bulls on their own tracks is never easy and it will be a tough test for the young players.
But I really like what I have seen of them. Injury is opportunity. At the start of 2012 the Chiefs had to bring in Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna and Sam Cane earlier than intended, and by June all three had been picked for the All Blacks squad.
A similar thing could be evolving at the Blues with the 21-year-old lock Patrick Tuipulotu, the 18-year-old Tevita Li (previously featured by the Rugby Site) and the 20-year-old Simon Hickey. The challenge is now to develop these players and get consistency from them.
Hickey doesn’t look like a bloke who you can rattle physically so it will be fascinating to see how the young 10 goes in South Africa. He is brave, composed and likes to attack the line.
The Blues also have some decisions ahead around Benji Marshall. If they decide to move him to full-back, that will mean Charles Piutau goes to centre, a switch the coaches have been considering. But will Piutau be so effective in the tighter spaces?
The Highlanders will probably need some luck in avoiding injury, as their squad does not look so deep as the others, but they are going to be a tough team on their own track.
They have changed their game plan this year. No longer do they try to attack from everywhere. They are playing more territory, they run hard, they are accurate and more direct. They are also a tough side to get the ball off. The challenge will be to maintain their physical levels, but Jamie Joseph’s a pretty smart guy and Tony Brown is another up and coming coach. Scott McLeod is coaching their defence and it’s been aggressive and smart so far this year.
I know the Hurricanes have started with two defeats, but they showed a lot of promise against the Stormers, a match they should have won. They had developed a good strategy to pressure the Stormers’ throw at the lineout, but I was particularly impressed by their defence.
The Canes were hugely physical in the tackle. They now look like a team that can go long periods without the ball and not yield. It will make them much harder to beat.
The Chiefs haven’t put our game together yet, but we have been persistent and dogged. We talk about what it means to be a Chief, but until players experience hard matches, you cannot be certain how they will react. So it has been rewarding to see the eight debutants so far this year show such character and pride in the jersey.
Asaeli Tikoirotuma has been a hidden jewel for us. Young wings should watch his game. He is probably the best in the country at understanding the game and applying strategy. Tikoirotuma has a huge work rate and shows how you can control a match from the wing, how you can paint pictures to influence opponents.
But as a team we are under no illusions. Last year we were average in lineout accuracy and poor in ball retention. Even winning sides always have a great deal to work on.
Outside the New Zealand conference the Sharks and the Waratahs look powerful. The Waratahs usually start strongly, but under Michael Cheika they look like the real deal. I was surprised by how much they beat the Reds by. They are a big team, with a good set piece and real weapons outside. They are a threat.
The Sharks should always be there and they are developing as a typically hard-nosed Jake White team. They are huge upfront and they don’t like making mistakes. They create pressure by giving the opposition absolutely nothing.
My dark horse is the Rebels. They have been building the last couple of years and are well funded. They have a very good coach in Tony McGahan and sooner or later they will be a power house. There is a burgeoning of the Aussie teams.
I suspect the All Blacks coaches will be keeping an eye on them. The signs are that the Aussies are building ahead of the World Cup. Australia, England, Wales, that’s going to be a hell of a group. Each one is a potential finalist.
This has all the makings of a very exciting and competitive season.
Who are you backing to win this season’s Super Rugby trophy? Comments below…