Scott Robertson’s Canterbury Crusaders are the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history with eight titles, 12 finals and just two missed playoffs over the last two decades. Coming off a stellar season where they lost just once and claimed another title, it is near-impossible to see the Crusaders not leading the way again. Continuity is the name of the game in Christchurch and Robertson has made fewer changes to his squad than any other New Zealand team with 12 All Blacks returning. One of the few changes is the inclusion of veteran fly half Mike Delany, who returns from an overseas sojourn, and strengthens arguably the Crusaders’ biggest weakness. No pack is as dominant and it provides a foundation for consistency that makes the Crusaders the most reliable outfit in Super Rugby.
If flair is to overcome fire this year, the Wellington Hurricanes have the scoring ability to overcome the Crusaders and claim their second title in three years. While there is no debating the toughness of a forward pack led by Dane Coles, Vaea Fifita and Julian Savea, it is the ability of the backline to rack up points that will be key to their success this year. With All Blacks No.10 Beauden Barrett, his brother Jordie at fullback and half TJ Perenara calling the shots and a potent three-quarter line that is led by Ngani Laumape, this Hurricanes team has the best backline and arguably the best roster in Super Rugby. No team scored more points than the Hurricanes in 2017 and only the Lions conceded fewer. This is a team ready and built to win.
The Sharks have struggled mightily for the better part of the last decade with just two playoff appearances but the tide looks like it could be about to turn for the men from Durban. Having gone on an offseason spree that has landed them rising fly half Rob du Preez, Springboks scrumhalf Louis Schreuder and Leolin Zas. With a favourable early-season draw that will see them go in heavily favoured in their first three games, the Sharks should be able to capitalise on their strong early start and return to the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
On The Up
There is nowhere to go but up for the Melbourne Rebels, who in a shambolic 2017 season managed just a single win. The Rebels have yet to record a winning season in their seven-season history and after the slate was cleaned in the offseason it would be folly to think they will be legitimate title contenders. They are in for some notable improvement though. With the Western Force booted from the competition, the Rebels pinched coach David Wessels as well as 11 former Force players led by Adam Coleman and Dane Haylett-Petty. Wessels will bring a level of professionalism definitely needed in Melbourne while the revamped forward pack should see Will Genia enjoy an improved year. Big things are also expected from former NRL star Marika Korobiete, who enjoyed a strong debut season with the Rebels, scoring six tries and winning a Wallaby jersey.
They’ve gone to back-to-back finals but the window for their first Super Rugby title may have eluded The Lions after some significant change over the offseason. Gone are coach Johan Ackermann, flyhalf Faf De Klerk and flanker Ruan Ackermann. Swys De Bruin takes the coaching reins and will need to do a quality job to get the Lions back up after being so close yet getting so far two years straight. South African teams have a wretched history in Super Rugby – The Bulls are the only franchise to win a Super Rugby title and their three came in a four-year period between 2007 and 2010 – and many of the Lions players will be backing up from long campaigns in Japanese club rugby. An easy draw that sees them have six home games in their first eight weeks should get them off to a good start but it is hard to see them replicating the deeds of the last two years.
The Chiefs sit on the fourth line of betting for Super Rugby despite some significant changes over the offseason that saw coach Dave Rennie replaced by former Hurricanes mentor Colin Cooper. Also departing are talismanic flyhalf Stephen Donald, Aaron Cruden, Tawera-Kerr Barlow and James Lowe. While there have not been significant changes outside of that foursome, the recruitment is certainly not enough to offset. After going back to back in 2012-13, the Chiefs have made the playoffs four straight seasons but have not been back to a decider. With a noticeably worse squad, the Chiefs look like they are being severely overvalued by the market.
Bottom of the Pack
The Sunwolves have won just three of 30 games in their two seasons playing Super Rugby and despite changing to the easier Australian conference and bringing in the highly respected former Highlanders premiership winning head coach Jamie Joseph, the Tokyo-based team will again struggle mightily. Defence has been the biggest concern for the Sunwolves, conceding 43.27ppg over their two seasons and that is a problem not readily fixed immediately by a coaching change. The recruitment of Michael Leitch from the Chiefs adds plenty of toughness to the pack but the Sunwolves need a lot more time for Joseph to make the cultural changes necessary.
No team has been handed a softer draw than the ACT Brumbies. Dan McKellar’s men have the benefit of playing in the soft Australian conference which means two matches against each of the Reds, Rebels and Sunwolves, which should provide them six wins straight off the bat. They also don’t travel to South Africa until Round 15. They will get every opportunity.
Early Season Angle
Round 1 matches are typically a lot closer than games tend to be by mid-season. Over the last two seasons, nine of the 18 first round matches have been decided by a single-digit margin. The opening round of the season is certainly a week for plus punters.