It may be Round 2 of Super Rugby this weekend, but for most teams it is their first outing of the season with everyone bar the Crusaders in action. Here’re some previews to help you make your SuperBru picks…
Highlanders v Chiefs, Dunedin – 08:35
The action kicks off in Dunedin on Friday when the Highlanders host the Chiefs. This has the potential to be an epic encounter, with last year’s winners taking on a team many are tipping for great things. New signings and internationals Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock will be keen to make an impression for the Highlanders, and will have to be shackled by the Chiefs if they are to win.
The Hamilton-based outfit will be without centre Richard Kahui, who has been ruled out for up to the first four games of the season. They face the pressure of being incumbent champions this season, and it will be fascinating to see how they deal with that pressure. Tim Nanai-Williams is rumoured to have been earmarked for a spot in the centres, and with his quick feet and acceleration that could be a frightening prospect. A slight man, it will be interesting to see if he is targeted in defence.
It will be a close game, but home advantage should see the Highlanders through.
Prediction: Highlanders by 3
Rebels v Brumbies, Melbourne – 10:40
The two teams to win the Australian derbies last weekend face off in Melbourne. The Rebels, despite the distraction of James O’Connor’s hair, battled to beat the Force by seven points, and the Brumbies recorded a comfortable if ugly win over the Reds. This weekend the Rebels will have to up their game if they are to beat a Brumbies team who define efficiency under coach Jake White.
New signing David Pocock will, you suspect, be key, and his battle in the back-row with fellow Wallaby Scott Higginbotham will be fascinating. The Brumbies won last week without getting out of second gear, and should have too much for the Rebels.
Prediction: Brumbies by 9
Bulls v Stormers, Pretoria – 19:10
The first South African derby comes from Pretoria as the Bulls take on the Stormers. Both teams have already named their line-ups, and they are packed with international quality. The battle between young pretender Elton Jantjies and out-of-favour Morne Steyn could decide the game, while the likes of Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Bjorn Basson will provide pace and excitement out wide.
Pierre Spies against Duane Vermuelen in the back-row is a bruising match-up, while captain Schalk Burger and young enforcer Eben Etzebeth will be huge losses for the Stormers. The Bulls will be without Springboks Akona Ndungane and Jacques Potgieter, but can nevertheless name a very strong team.
Another very close call, but pre-season favourites the Stormers could edge it.
Prediction: Stormers by 2
Hurricanes v Blues, Wellington – 08:35
All Black wing Cory Jane has been ruled out for the whole season and his presence will be missed for the Hurricanes, while young openside flank Ardie Savea has been banned until the end of March. Stalwarts Victor Vito and Conrad Smith will be key to the chances of the ‘Canes.
The Blues are not being given much of a chance this year, despite the experience in their line-up with the likes of captain Ali Williams and Piri Weepu – a lot will depend on his level of performance. Kevin Mealamu is on a Richie McCaw-style sabbatical until March and will be missed, but they carry some good pre-season form into this game with them.
In Wellington, it is tough to see past a Hurricanes win.
Prediction: Hurricanes by 14
Reds v Waratahs, Brisbane – 10:40
For a team that won the competition as recently as 2011, the Reds will be very disappointed with their level of performance last weekend. If Quade Cooper can get his head right he can be a match winner – if not he can be a liability. Whichever way that goes will be vital to their chances, and they will once again sorely miss the leadership and physicality of skipper James Horwill.
The Waratahs are the only Aussie franchise not to have played last weekend, so may lack a bit of match sharpness. Their chances in this game will come down to how quickly they can adapt back to the rigours of competitive rugby. Wallaby Rob Horne will be missed in the centre, while NRL convert Israel Folau will be targeted (as has been openly admitted by Reds coach Ewen McKenzie) in defence.
The Reds were sluggish last weekend but should bounce back at home against rivals the Waratahs.
Prediction: Reds by 6
Cheetahs v Sharks, Bloemfontein – 17:05
The retirement of Springbok flank Juan Smith so close to the new season will have rocked the Cheetahs, and a lot will depend on how they cope in his absence. Young international flyhalf Johan Goosen will play a big role in any success this season, while hooker and captain Adriaan Strauss will lead from the front. With a win against the Stormers in pre-season under their belts, Cheetahs fans can be quietly confident.
A massive blow was dealt to the Sharks this week when it was reported that Springbok hard man Willem Alberts would miss the first month of Super Rugby action, while returning flyhalf Butch James is also absent. Pat Lambie will be ready to step in, though, while much responsibility will fall on the shoulders of stand-in captain Frans Steyn.
The Cheetahs are looking good, but the Sharks will still be smarting from losing last year’s final, and will kick-off their season with a win.
Prediction: Sharks by 6
Kings v Force, Port Elizabeth – 19:10
The Southern Kings get their Super Rugby existence off to a start against the Force. They failed to win any of their warm-up matches despite playing teams that weren’t of the standard they will face over the season, leading many to predict they will face a tough time of things. Fans will be hoping they are saving their best for the actual season, while controversial figure Luke Watson will have a big job on his hands to galvanise a team not many are giving a chance to.
The Force put in a spirited display against the Rebels last weekend and will be confident of getting their first win this weekend. They could welcome back international lock Hugh McMeniman, while Wallabies Matt Hodgson, Nick Cummins and Salesi Ma’afu are all also in the squad.
It is never easy for Aussie teams in South Africa, but it is difficult to see anything other than a win for the Force here.
Prediction: Force by 20
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43