Predicting who will fill the play-off spots in Super Rugby is more difficult than ever this year. The competition has become a marathon with the grand final not due to take place until early August. Player management will be more of an issue than before as coaches try to balance playing time with rest for key players. They will also have to manage the 3 week hiatus in June when England, Wales & Ireland will play 3 Test matches each in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand respectively. Senior players will have international duties and squad depth will be tested with injuries inevitable.
A useful starting point is to look at the top 6 from 2011 and consider which teams outside that group might pose a serious challenge for a play-off spot. The Reds, Crusaders and Sharks have stable squads and management teams. Ewen McKenzie, Todd Blackadder & John Plumtree are experienced coaches who each have several years experience at Super Rugby level and one would expect that they will take their teams to the play-offs and possibly top the three conferences.
The Waratahs, Blues and Stormers also contested the play-offs last season and will each push hard to be there again this year. The Tahs will miss Kurtley Beale, Luke Burgess and Ryan Cross but new coach Michael Foley will be pleased with the addition of Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rocky Elsom and Sarel Pretoriou. The Blues will be boosted by the arrival of Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Rudi Wolf but their supporters will expect big things from a squad that also includes RWC winners Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Ali Williams. The Stormers have had a string of departures and will particularly miss Jaque Fourie and Francois Louw. Their squad however is still strong and experienced and Allister Coetzee has turned down a return to the Springbok coaching group to continue his efforts to bring a Super Rugby championship to Cape Town.
The greatest challenge to this group is likely to come from the Bulls, Chiefs or Highlanders. The Bulls were champions in 2009 and 2010 but failed to make the knockout stages last year. They have lost talismanic figures in Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez and Heynke Meyer has taken over as head coach of the Springboks. New coach at the Chiefs Dave Rennie has added SBW and Aaron Cruden to his squad and will be boosted by the addition of assistant coaches Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry but this may need to be viewed as a two or three year project. The Highlanders have picked up Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore and Englishman James Haskell and in Ben Smith have a player who showed great progress during 2011. The Highlanders won seven of their first 9 games last season before losing their last four games and finishing third in the NZ conference, 8th overall.
The Lions, Cheetahs, Force, Rebels, Brumbies and Hurricanes all have strengths and one assumes will have their moments during the season. However, inconsistency, lack of experience, rebuilding, inability to win on the road and lack of squad depth are some of the reasons why each of these teams will struggle to make the last six.
The Highlanders will have learned at lot during 2011 and may be the team best positioned to have a crack at playoff qualification. If they are successful it may be at the expense of the Waratahs who could struggle in the first season under new coach Michael Foley.
On the four occasions since 1995 that a southern hemisphere team has won the world cup, no team from the winning country has won the Super Rugby title in the following year.
Top Six: Reds, Crusaders, Stormers, Sharks, Blues and Highlanders.