Will the Reds bring the trophy home again?
It's been four months since the All Blacks triumphed over a determined French outfit in the final
of a memorable, if not controversial, Rugby World Cup.
But, the glorious celebrations and hangover from this occasion have been forgotten—and they've been forgotten for a long time.
The fans, media and players are ready, willing and excited for a new season of Super Rugby,
and the 2012 edition is really going to be something special.
Not only does the playing field between the teams seem more even (due in part to player departures, retirements and injuries), but it will be the longest-ever season of Super Rugby to date.
If one includes the three-week international break in June, it will encompass a mammoth five months of almost continuous rugby for the players. It goes without saying that squad depth is going to be critical this season, more so than any other season.
The Reds, the defending champions, used 39 players in their successful 2011 campaign. Teams
have used the preseason fixtures to blood youngsters and give them a chance to get used matches and the team setups.
However, preseason and actual season are very different, and its going to be the team that can best incorporate squad players when the inevitable injuries hit that will be holding the trophy on 4 August.
So, who will be victorious at the end of the final? It is anyone's guess this season. However, the usual suspects do come to mind.
The Reds are defending champions and should be backed to win their conference.
The Crusaders and Blues will fight for bragging rights in New Zealand, whilst the Stormers and Sharks look set to battle it out in a very evenly poised South African conference.
The first week of Super Rugby is upon us, and I for one can't wait until the first whistle is blown in the Blues/Crusaders game. And what a game to kick us off!
Here are my Week 1 predictions.
Blues vs. Crusaders
A tantalising opener for this year's competition which really could go either way. Crusaders are favourites but have traditionally struggled in the opening rounds, only really firing after a couple of weeks of competition.
I think this trend will continue, and with home-ground advantage the Blues will pick up a closely fought five-point win.
Brumbies vs. Force
The Brumbies are fielding an almost entirely "new" team with a very youthful feel about them. The Force will be led by influential breakdown king David Pocock and probably have a little more experience then their opponents.
Force to win by 10 points.
Bulls vs. Sharks
The Bulls have lost a number of key experienced players this season as they come up against a more experienced Sharks team.
Sharks have beaten the Bulls numerous times in recent years, and I expect this to continue.
Sharks to win by six points.
Chiefs vs. Highlanders
An interesting encounter between two teams that have really failed to deliver in recent seasons.
The Chiefs will showcase their new marquee signing in Sonny Bill Williams and seem to have a little more firepower in the backs to really be troubled.
Chiefs to win by 12 points.
Waratahs vs. Reds
Expect these two teams to be at the top of the Australian conference, and the Tahs will be determined to make a statement against a Reds outfit that is lacking Quade Cooper.
The loss of Cooper is massive, but the Reds should still possess the capacity to pull one over on their rivals.
Reds to win a close encounter by six points.
Stormers vs. Hurricanes
The Stormers lost a handful of players last year and are fielding a team that is a blend of youth and experience. The Hurricanes are a dangerous opposition and could prove a potential slip-up for the team from the Cape.
Still, home-ground advantage and defence should push it in the Stormers' favour.
Stormers to win by about 10 points.
Lions vs. Cheetahs
The traditional bottom two teams in the South African conference, these two teams can't possibly be thinking of Super Rugby glory.
What they will be looking to achieve is a general improvement in results. The Lions will want to impress after their domestic Currie Cup win last year, whilst the Cheetahs will want to turn around those close losses from last year and start the season running.
Lions to win a close game by five points.