Take a breath, because the 2012 Super 15 is already upon us. We haven’t had much of a break, but despite having little time to recover from the glut of rugby last year, the beginning of the new season still has me giddy at the prospect of a fresh start after a pretty forgettable 2011.
What makes this particular year even more enticing is the promise of something different. A new generation of stars is preparing to step out into the spotlight after a batch of high-profile retirements, and it beckons the dawn of a new era of Super Rugby.
The three conferences will be interesting, with the South African side of the draw wide open once again, particularly with the emergence of the Lions as real contenders as opposed to perennial whipping boys.
The New Zealand and Australian pools may not be as competitive as in SA, but player movement and new coaches will certainly have an impact on shaping the outcomes in Australasia.
This is how I see it going in 2012…
South African conference:
Unlike the two conferences in Australasia, there are no real “easy-beats” in the SA pool. The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls are historically the strongest three franchises, and will again start as favourites, but the Lions and Cheetahs have shown sporadically throughout Super Rugby seasons in the past that they are capable of big things.
In 2012, I think we will begin to see more consistency from SA’s underdogs.
Pre-season is never a true reflection of form, but there have been some interesting results in SA. The Cheetahs beating the Stormers at Newlands, the Lions hammering a SWD/Border outfit – not difficult, it has to be said – and the Bulls knocking over the Cheetahs with apparent ease, reveals an even spread across the franchises.
Adding to a combustible conference is the shadow being cast over the SA side of the draw by the Kings. One of these five teams is going to get the boot at the end of this season and that means extra motivation to finish on top – or, more importantly, off the bottom – and you can be sure that the derby matches are going to be even more brutal than usual...
New Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will be hoping he can field a team come the England series mid-year.
The Stormers have been the most consistent SA side over the past couple of seasons, but the loss of some of their senior players and the departure of Rassie Erasmus may hurt them. The Lions showed tremendous form in the Currie Cup last year, but I am not sure we will see that translate into immediate Super Rugby success, while the Cheetahs will always battle if they lose a couple of key players. The Bulls may be going through a rebuilding phase, but they still have great depth and will challenge for the top spot, while the Sharks have some impressive young talent coming through the ranks and some hardened veterans up front.
The SA sides are so well-matched that this is a ridiculously hard one to call, and while I admit it is a gamble, I am going with the Stormers finishing on top, followed by the Sharks in second.
New Zealand conference:
There have been some interesting movements at franchise level in New Zealand, particularly at the Hurricanes, where some of the most experienced - and best - players have been lost in an apparent revolt against coach Mark Hammett. Ma’a Nonu, Andrew Hore, Piri Weepu and Hosea Gear all departed in the off-season and it is going to be tough for the ‘Canes to cope with so many high-profile losses.
The Highlanders, who have struggled to keep their heads above water for years, are already battling with injuries, and while they did well with limited resources last year, I cannot see them challenging in 2012. The same goes for the Chiefs, who like the Highlanders, just don’t seem to have the same playing pool to draw on as the other teams in New Zealand.
The Blues will be keen to unleash new acquisition Nonu in the midfield and will hope to be the front-runners, while the Crusaders – still without a real home – will be looking to go one better than last year’s runners-up.
With all the players the Hurricanes have lost, it will be an uphill battle for them this year, while the Highlanders and Chiefs will be fighting for the wooden spoon in the Kiwi conference. The smart money is on the Crusaders, but the loss of Richie McCaw early on may hurt them and without a home base their cause has not been helped. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Blues are going to be the team to watch in New Zealand this year with some very good buys in the off-season and I am willing to put money on them topping the conference, with the Crusaders hot on their heels.
There will be some additional interest in the Australians this season, with former Bok coach Jake White charged with rebuilding the Brumbies into a major force. And he will have his work cut out for him. The Australians have generally had the Waratahs to bank on in the past, but the Reds last year turned the Super 15 on its head to not only become front-runners in Oz, but across the tournament as a whole.
It will again be the Reds who run the show in Australia this year, with the Brumbies rebuilding, the Force a spent, ahem, force, the Rebels lacking depth and the Waratahs seemingly fighting as many battles off the field as they are on it.
I can’t look beyond the Reds in the Australian conference, which amongst the three is by far the weakest, with the Rebels and Force making up the numbers. The Waratahs, despite being traditionally the strongest Australian side, continue to flatter to deceive and new coach Michael Foley has the task of lifting them after another disappointing season in 2011. There may be some additional South African interest in the Brumbies with White in charge, but like Foley, he is going to have his work cut out for him with a team that is a shadow of the side that was once the best in Australia.
Chances are I will be proved wrong – it happens more often than I would like – but the smart money is on the Reds and Waratahs to finish one and two this year.