Super Rugby: Week 1 Picks
Only a few days remain until Super Rugby kicks off again at Eden Park between the Blues and the Crusaders (a game I shall be attending).
Last year saw the Queensland Reds win the Super Rugby crown after many years of being in the lower end of the Super Rugby table.
But that was last year, and this is another.
The way players have moved around this season has led to some very stacked teams, such as the Blues, Crusaders, Reds and Bulls, who all have over 10 test players each.
The start of the season isn't known for having the best play because for many players, it will be the first rugby they play all year. But that doesn't stop epics like last year's Blues vs. Crusaders from happening. Hopefully there will be another thriller like that to open the season.
When starting lineups get released, I will try to write more detailed positional breakdowns, but for now, here are my picks for the opening week of Super Rugby.
Blues vs. Crusaders
Last year's Week 1 match between the Blues and the Crusaders was probably the best 15 bucks I've ever spent. The game went down to the last five minutes, and had it not been for two awful kicking days, the total score probably would've broken 60 points.
This year's meeting promises to be as action-packed as the last one. The two teams feature 27 All Blacks between them. Like any good sporting rivalry, both teams will be sure to leave everything on the field.
The factor that could be the difference, though, is the absence of key All Blacks from the Crusaders lineup.
Dan Carter is on extended leave, Richie McCaw is still recovering from that ankle and Zac Guildford is serving a four-game suspension for his alcoholism. Their replacements aren't slouches however, with solid former Under-20 player of the year candidate Tyler Bleyendaal, ball magnet Matt Todd and Fijian giant Patrick Osborne.
Still, against the Blues back line, loose forward pool and home crowd, they may have a hard time without their leaders.
Brumbies vs. Force
The offseason has gone in opposite directions for these two franchises.
While the Brumbies appear to be in a rebuilding phase, letting go of a number of players, including Wallabies Rocky Elsom, Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, the Western Force has bolstered their roster, which already includes Wallabies stars like David Pocock and Nathan Sharpe, with the likes of Fijian winger Napolioni Nalaga and young Auckland star Winston Stanley.
The young players in this Brumbies team may be good in the future, but the Force have the goods and won't need as much time to gel.
The Brumbies have home-field advantage and probably a slight edge in the back line, but it's hard to go against a forward pack that will have David Pocock wreaking havoc at the breakdown and World Cup players Nathan Sharpe, Ben McCalman, Matt Hodgson and Salesi Ma'afu.
Bulls vs. Sharks
The South African Super Rugby season begins with a rematch of the 2007 Super Rugby Final.
The Bulls failed to complete the three-peat last year, not even making the Super Rugby playoffs, but this season they will be looking to become a playoff team once more. The Sharks, on the other hand, were a playoff team, being thumped by the Crusaders in the qualifying round.
Both teams are evenly matched at most positions, with the Bulls having the slight edge at the lineouts with Flip van der Merwe, and the Sharks having the scrum advantage with du Plessis and Mtawarira.
What will probably be the difference in this game is home-field advantage and experience.
Chiefs vs. Highlanders
The player movement in the offseason has left these two franchises with some talented rosters.
The Chiefs will be looking to bounce back from last season where they finished last in the New Zealand conference. Their acquisitions of pivot Aaron Cruden and utility back Sonny Bill Williams should help them out.
The Highlanders, on the other hand, will aim to build on last year's improved season, especially after acquiring the likes of Andrew Hore and Hosea Gear from the Hurricanes.
However, the Highlanders have been facing injury problems lately, with Colin Slade, Jarrad Hoeata and Siale Piutau being among the big names missing from last week's preseason fixture.
James Haskell and Tamati Ellison are still busy finishing their season for the RICOH Black Rams in Japan, and their stay may be extended due to the team's success. Those cowbells in Hamilton also make it very hard for most teams to play there.
Waratahs vs. Reds
These are the two best Australian teams in the competition.
The Reds are the defending Super Rugby champions and will face a stern challenge in the opening week of their title defense.
Due to an injury suffered during last year's Bronze final at the Rugby World Cup, the Reds will be missing mercurial playmaker Quade Cooper, and will most likely rely on another Kiwi, Harbour man Michael Harris.
With both teams evenly matched in the forwards, both being capable of rolling out all-Wallaby forward packs, the main difference will be in the back line, where the Waratahs have Berrick Barnes at pivot and Adam Ashley-Cooper at fullback.
The Reds are a different team away from Suncorp Stadium, and Michael Harris will be facing a baptism of fire against the Waratahs.
Stormers vs. Hurricanes
Last year's South African conference winners square off against a team that barely escaped being last place in their conference.
The Hurricanes are a young team that lost a lot of key names over the summer, including last year's captain Andrew Hore. The Stormers have also lost a number of key players to overseas contracts, such as halfback Ricky Januarie, loose forward Francois Louw and centre Jacque Fourie.
The two teams are fairly evenly matched, with decent forward packs and speed in their back lines, with the likes of Habana, Smith, Aplon and Jane on the teams.
But the Hurricanes will likely be relying on young pivot Beauden Barrett, who will be making his Hurricanes debut, to run their back line in a hostile environment.
Lions vs. Cheetahs
The opening week of Super Rugby concludes with a matchup between perennial bottom feeders in the South African conference.
The Lions and the Cheetahs finished 14th and 11th, respectively, in last year's competition.
Neither team has many internationals. The Lions have four, including long time Springbok pivot Butch James and prop CJ van der Linde. The Cheetahs have five, including arguably the best current Springboks player, Heinrich Brussow.
The Lions were terrible at home last year so the fact that this game will be in Johannesburg may work in the Cheetahs' favour.