It’s always hard to figure out the Super 15 in advance because there are so many variables. You have to have a good depth of squad and be lucky with injuries. We saw how that hurt the Highlanders last season. You need consistency from refs. And you need consistency from your own players, because it is possible to tip up to anyone.
Last year the Crusaders lost away to the Reds and the Blues, hard games. But we also lost at home to the Highlanders and away to the Cheetahs when we weren’t quite on the job. Not many predicted those two results and they lost us home country advantage in the semi and the final. You could make a case for saying those two results cost us the Super 15.
So you have to be prepared week in week out. It will also be important to be able to come together quickly because there is a three week international break in June for internationals. The test players then come back into camp for the final three rounds of the Super 15. Those matches will be crucial and you cannot afford time to re-adapt.
We have been told in advance that the refs are going to be very strict at the breakdown and insist on the tackler rolling away. That is great, so long as they are consistent. In 2010 the refs were very good and stuck to their policy. They forced the players into good habits and maintained it throughout the season. They may have slipped a little last year, so I would love to see the officials regain that consistency of 2010.
Looking at the contenders for 2012 there may not be too many surprises in the finish, although I expect upsets along the way. It’s hard to go past the Reds again. They are young but experienced, they know how success works, they have a lot of the same players from last year. The Reds will be a hard team to knock off.
They start against the Waratahs and it is difficult to gauge the other Aussie teams. The Rebels have James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale this year, but they may not have the culture yet. Jake White will bring something a bit different to the Brumbies.
We don’t have to play them, but I will watch with interest. When Jake was in charge of the Springboks they were conservative but effective, they had a low error count but were efficient. The Aussie DNA tends to be have a crack regardless of field position. Maybe the Brujmbies will benefit from a bit more structure.
The Stormers, who open against the Hurricanes, again look to be the team to beat in South Africa. They have the depth, they are good up front and play a style that is hard to break down. They will be in contention again.
But the other South African teams also have a little mystery about them this year. I am looking forward to seeing their local derbies. The Lions won the Currie Cup and they open against the Cheetahs who finished strongly in 2011. That’s intriguing.
And what about the Bulls. They are always tough to beat at Loftus but Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez are very big boots to fill. But South Africans keep popping up just when they are starting to look short of players.
Of the New Zealand teams the Chiefs could cause some damage with the likes of Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill and Richard Kahui in the backs. But the Blues, who we play first up, look to have a strong squad again. So although I expect upsets, maybe the final four won’t look so very different to 2011.
Opening Round Fixtures:
- Blues v Crusaders
- Brumbies v Western Force
- Bulls v Sharks
- Chiefs v Highlanders
- Waratahs v Reds
- Stormers v Hurricanes
- Lions v Cheetahs