The 2017 Super Rugby season is upon us and as far as punters are concerned, one of the New Zealand franchises are the favourites to win the trophy in early August. The most favoured of the Aussie contingent is the Waratahs, closely followed by the Brumbies while much hype has surrounded about how much improvement is expected of the Queensland Reds with some key additions to the squad.
With the relatively successful introduction of three new franchises last year, Super Rugby’s continual expansion from the original 12 to 18 teams 21 years (since professional rugby was formed in 1996) on has encouraged the growth of the world game. There is a wealth of international experience across just about all teams this year with last year’s champions the Hurricanes the most blessed with so many New Zealand representatives in their squad.
The Finals series looks to have an element of cricket’s Duckworth-Lewis formula incorporated and the road to the finals following 15 regular season games will likely not take shape until deep into the season. With that in mind, we preview some of those expected to perform.
Last season was a breakthrough one for the Hurricanes as they managed to lead the way as regular season premiers, NZ Conference champions and eventual championship winners. The Wellington-based club is also very well positioned to claim back-to-back titles with the likes of current All Blacks players Cory Jane, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Dane Coles on their roster. Last season the Hurricanes lost just four of 15 regular season matches and went on to win all of their finals matches including an emphatic 20-3 win over the Lions in the final. In the preseason, the Canes enjoyed a well-earned 33-27 win over fellow title contenders the Crusaders.
The 2015 winners couldn’t quite replicate their championship-winning form last season but did enjoy a regular season success of 11 wins from 15 matches. The Highlanders have some of New Zealand’s most gifted players including All Blacks vice-captain Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Malaki Fekitoa and Liam Squire. The trial form of the Otago-based franchise has been okay but defence would be an issue in the wake of their 50-47 win over the Waratahs in which they fielded close to a full-strength team. Fullback Ben Smith was particularly good in that trial win, exposing a youthful Waratahs team on a number of occasions with his team piling on six first-half tries at Sydney’s Brookvale Oval.
The Crusaders have won seven championships since Super Rugby started back in 1996 and the Christchurch-based team will enter its 22nd season as one of the most heavily backed teams to increase that tally in 2017. Last year was a largely disappointing one for them but the playing group would be optimistic about progressing further than the quarter finals this year. The acquisition of former Wallaby Digby Ioane could be a rocks or diamonds signing with the former Reds outside back returning from a brief stint from Japanese team Honda Heat. As always the Crusaders are expected to there or thereabouts at the end of the season after producing a solid 2016 campaign that yielded 11 wins.
The Waratahs are the second shortest priced of the Australian Super Rugby clubs heading into the opening week of competition. The Tahs have had to deal with some crucial departures including Tatafu Polota-Nau, Kurtley Beale, Dave Dennis and Wycliff Palu with former Broncos winger Reece Robinson set to take over from Beale’s goal-kicking duties. In a major boost for the Waratahs, Wallabies forward and club captain Michael Hooper has been outstanding throughout the preseason and put in a solid 65-minute performance in NSW’s loss to the Highlanders in the lead-up to their round one match against Western Force.
The Brumbies were Australian Conference winners last year and Stephen Larkham’s strong squad will again enter the season with high expectations. In a 'swap' with Queensland, the Brumbies were able to add a little more depth to their squad with the Fainga’a twins being welcomed into the set-up, however those additions were offset by the loss of former skipper Stephen Moore. Typically, the Canberra-based team is generally in the mix at the end of the season and usually performs better than the four other Australian Super Rugby teams. The Brumbies also consistently have the most amount of Wallabies representatives.
Queensland welcomes home one of its favourite sons Quade Cooper back to its ranks with the current Wallaby looking to re-establish his beloved Reds as a Super Rugby force. Now that former rugby league superstar Karmichael Hunt has had a full season and preseason under his belt, the Brisbane-based franchise can genuinely expect to vie for the Australian Conference lead. Last year was a forgettable one for the Reds and after some changes to the coaching ranks, some key signings and decent trial form, they're in good shape for 2017. Other notable signings by the Reds include Scott Higginbotham, George Smith and Stephen Moore.