Super Rugby: Who Are the Real Contenders After 3 Rounds?

Jeff CheshireAnalyst IIMarch 5, 2011

The Highlanders have gotten off to a great start and look to be one of the top teams for 2011.
The Highlanders have gotten off to a great start and look to be one of the top teams for 2011.Phil Walter/Getty Images

All unbeaten and holding the top three positions on the ladder, the Highlanders, Sharks and Stormers are the front-runners three weeks into the 2011 Super Rugby competition.

It is the Highlanders though that have set the benchmark in the early stages with wins over the Hurricanes and Chiefs, as well as an impressive win over the defending champion Bulls side at Loftus Versfeld.

The Bulls hadn't lost at their home ground of Loftus since 2008, making the win even more impressive.

The southerners have completely blown their opposition off the park in their three games, smashing teams up front, allowing them to win good ball for their backs.

It seems things have finally taken a turn for the better at the Highlanders. Whether they can go the distance remains to be seen, but if they keep playing the way they are at the moment they will be tough to beat.

The Sharks and Stormers are both unbeaten and have looked good as well although their competition hasn't been quite at the same level as that of the Highlanders.

How they go in the coming weeks will show how good they truly are. Both sides look to have strong forward packs which will be their strengths as the competition progresses, and, like last year, will rely on strong defences as opposed to a good attack.

Much hype had surrounded the Waratahs as they entered their match against the Crusaders on Friday night.

This was premature as their opponents hadn't been the strongest and they had been found wanting too often only to be bailed out by a poor option from their opposition. This proved to be the case as a lack of forward dominance saw them struggle to maintain any sort of control against a dominant Crusaders team.

This will be the Waratah's downfall this year and may have to rely on each on the automatic playoff berth rule for each conference winner to progress any further.

It hasn't been entirely smooth-smailing for the Crusaders either. Other than the obvious set-back of the earthquake two weeks ago, they have looked sloppy and haven't been playing the typical Crusader rugby that we have come to know. Too often they have lacked patience and taken wrong options.

Their new poster boy Sonny Bill Williams looked awful in his debut on Friday night, throwing away too much ball and looking lost on defence. For 20 minutes against the Waratahs they showed how good they can be, and if they are able to play like that for a whole game, they will undoubtedly be in the mix come finals time.

I have no doubt they will do this and the return of Richie McCaw will see them become one of the competition's leading teams once more.

The defending champion Bulls side have been far from convincing in their first three outings with close wins over the Lions and Cheetahs and a loss to the Highlanders.

They are an experienced team—and like the Crusaders—will no doubt come right as the competition progresses. While they may not be the same side they have been in previous, their squad still contains the core of that team meaning they have a ton of experience and know how to win games.

The Bulls have shown the ability to fight back from large deficits, and once they put together an 80-minute performance they will be right up there come playoffs time too.

The Hurricanes have only played one game—which they lost—but given the loss was to the undefeated Highlanders, it may not have been as bad a loss as we all first thought. They have arguably the most dangerous backline in the competition and a solid forward pack. Whether this translates to form on the field is another question.

The remainder of the competition looks relatively average. It's still early, but none of the other teams look to have what it takes.

The Blues on their day can beat anyone but look as though their inconsistency will linger and be their downfall.

A weak forward pack will cost the Chiefs, who will win most of their games against the bottom sides but will struggle against the real contenders.

Things are looking up for the Lions, but they still might be a year or two off.

Meanwhile the loss of Juan Smith is massive for the Cheetahs and could prove the difference between a good season and a bad one.

The Australian sides all possess skillful backlines but are weak up front. And with the exception of the Waratahs, all will probably struggle as the competition progresses.

These teams are all capable of beating anyone on their day, but week in week out it doesn't look as though they will be good enough.

With the new format making for such a long competition this year, one of the keys to success will be the ability to manage players to make sure they don't burn out as the competition progresses.

This is where sides such as the Crusaders and Bulls will begin to flourish given their depth all over the park. How well teams are able to manage their players could have a large impact on the outcome of the competition and leaves a degree of uncertainty hanging over the coming weeks.

One thing's for sure though: If the first three rounds are anything to go by, we are in for another great season of Super Rugby.