Super Rugby: Power Ranking Every Championship Winning Team
We are currently in the sixteenth season of Super Rugby and at the time of writing, four teams remain in the bid to become the 2011 Champions.
But before they do this, let us take a look back at the history of the competition and remember all those who came before them who were able to march into the pantheon of greatness.
Super Rugby has come a long way in its history. It started out as a 12-team competition in 1996 and despite rugby having just turned professional, most of the teams operated in a very amateur way, some only practising twice a week. But it evolved and became more and more professional every year. In 2006, two new teams were brought into the competition, the Force and the Cheetahs. Then again in 2011 we saw the introduction of the Melbourne Rebels, making for a 15-team competition.
Over the years, every team has had their moment in the spotlight as being one of the teams to beat, just as every team has had their darkest hour down near the bottom of the ladder. Despite this, only four teams have ever won championships, showing that winning in this competition is perhaps a culture built within a franchise, rather than just having the best players.
All of these winning teams were undoubtedly great, with their share of great players, memorable performances and distinct characteristics.
But how good are they all compared to one another? What would happen if the all conquering Blues teams of the early years were to take on the Bulls sides of recent times?
In this list I've attempted to rank all the champions to find who was truly the greatest. Rankings are based largely on how well the teams performed and how dominant they were, rather than by how good they were on paper.
And lastly, while reading remember, this is only one man's opinion!
15. 2007 Bulls
After such a long time at the bottom, the Bulls finally completed their rise to the top and announced their revival in 2007 by claiming their first championship.
They looked beat in the Final against the Sharks, trailing 19-13 with time up on the clock. But such was the heart of this Bulls side, they never gave up and Bryan Habana was able to score one of the most memorable tries in Super Rugby history, which was converted to give the Bulls a thrilling one point win.
Why do they rank so lowly? Why you may ask, is this side below every other championship winning team?
The main reason comes in that 2007 was probably the weakest Super Rugby competition. There were 22 All Blacks missing for over half of the competition, seven of which came from New Zealand's best hope to win, the Crusaders. This was so these players would remain fresh for the World Cup later in the year.
Whatever the consequences of this were, it certainly weakened the competition and made it an easier run in, although no win is ever easy in this competition.
Take nothing away from this Bulls side. They were a class act, with players such as Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Bakkies Botha, Fourie Du Preez and Bryan Habana making them a formidable force. But it was more the strength of the competition that sets them back on this list.
14. 1998 Crusaders
The first of the Crusaders seven championships came when they shocked the world by beating the back-to-back champion Blues side.
A slow start to the competition saw them win just one of their first three games. But as the Crusaders so often do, they came right and remained unbeaten for the rest of the season.
Needing a win in Durban to avoid having to stay another week and play their semifinal in South Africa, the Crusaders rallied and beat the Sharks 32-20.
This set up a rematch the next week in Christchurch, where they narrowly beat a fired up Sharks team. Norm Berryman bagged doubles in both games and the reliable boot of Andrew Mehrtens saw them progress to take on the Blues in Auckland for the championship.
It must be remembered however, this wasn't the Blues side of the previous two years. They had undergone changes in their geographical area, while having also lost some key players, namely Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke, while other key players were beginning to show the effects of long careers.
But it still came as a surprise when James Kerr crossed the line in the final minutes of the Final to claim an unlikely 20-13 victory.
The team slides on these rankings due to the fact that it was a weakened Blues team they beat, as well as the fact that this was the start of a truly great run in which the Crusaders got better and better.
13. 1999 Crusaders
1999 was another typical Crusaders performance. After some average performances early on in the competition, they came right and scraped into the playoffs in fourth position.
They would then travel to Brisbane and beat the Reds in a gutsy 28-22 win. Only the Highlanders stood between them and the championship. But they would have to topple them at their fortress, Carisbrook, if they were to win.
After trailing at halftime, they came back in true Crusaders style, and an Afato So'oalo special saw them claim their second championship in as many years.
However, this team doesn't rate as highly as others for various reasons. Despite winning the championship, they were arguably only the fourth best team during the season. The Reds and Stormers were both dominant, while the Highlanders were arguably the most dominant of them all.
But for a missed call in the Highlanders final round-robin game, the Highlanders would have finished top of the table and most likely would have gone on to win the championship.
But this isn't what happened, and the Highlanders had to travel to South Africa to take on the Stormers in their semifinal. It was a gutsy performance that saw them become the only touring side to ever win a playoff game in South Africa, but it was at a great cost.
The side was left weakened and a tired team returned to Dunedin to play a Crusaders side full of confidence in the Final. And the effects of the travel began to show as the Crusaders wore the Highlanders down and ran in 15 second-half points.
Still, it must be said, winning at Carisbrook was a remarkable effort. It was the last time the Highlanders would lose at home until the Crusaders toppled them 17-16 in 2003.
12. 2008 Crusaders
The 2008 Crusaders were nothing short of class, losing just two games in a 15-game season (including playoffs). But they fall to 12 in these rankings for much the same reason the 2007 Bulls fell.
The 2008 Super 14 wasn't one of the stronger competitions. Many players had left their teams after the 2007 World Cup and many were rebuilding for the coming years.
Most notably the Bulls were without their main-man Victor Matfield and they weren't the same team because of it. Had a full strength Bulls team been in the mix, it would have been a much tougher run in for a Crusaders side who rarely looked like being troubled.
Richie McCaw led a forward pack containing six All Blacks, while Dan Carter was his usual brilliant self at First-five and the kingpin of a backline containing five All Blacks.
They finished nine points clear of their nearest opponents on the competition ladder, losing just two games, before going on to beat the Hurricanes in the semifinal.
The Final put them up against the Waratahs, who were competitive for a large part of the game, but as is often the case, the Crusaders took their chances and pulled away in the second half, as Dan Carter steered them to a 20-12 win.
11. 2004 Brumbies
The Brumbies were deserved winners of the 2004 Super 12, being clearly the best team throughout. The competition was relatively even in 2004, with most of the teams beating each other. The only exceptions to this came in the lowly Cats and the exceptional Brumbies.
Although they did drop three games during the season, they were still able to finish in top position, meaning they would have home advantage for the semifinal and final.
This would prove to be crucial, as they brushed aside the Chiefs in the semifinals, before scoring seven tries to beat the Crusaders in a high-scoring Final.
The great nine-ten combination of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham steered the Brumbies around the field, and created many opportunities for their dangerous backline which also included Joe Roff, Mark Gerrard, Clyde Rathbone and Matt Giteau.
An All-Wallaby forward pack, saw that these backs got quality ball, as they were able to recycle it so quickly, defences didn't have much time to get organised.
While I haven't rated this team as one of the top teams, I also don't see them as being a bad team, more a middle of the road type team compared to the other 14 championship teams.
10. 2000 Crusaders
The new millennium saw the saw the Crusaders complete their three-peat after beating the Brumbies in a thrilling Final at Bruce Stadium.
The game came just two weeks after the sides met for their round-robin game which would determine who would finish top of the table and have the rights to a home final should they qualify.
It was the Brumbies who won this encounter and the Crusaders were forced to Canberra to play the Brumbies in their own fortress.
It was great confidence then, that the Brumbies entered the Final. And all was going well as they led 19-15 late in the game.
But in true Crusaders spirit, Ron Cribb crashed over to score a late try, which saw the Crusaders home 20-19.
While they weren't necessarily the best of all these teams through the season, to beat the Brumbies on their home turf after only dropping two games all season was an outstanding effort and earns them the No. 10 spot on this list.
9. 2005 Crusaders
The last year of the Super 12 saw the Crusaders win their fifth championship, after a 35-25 win over the Waratahs in the Final in Christchurch. It was the first of Richie McCaw's three championships as captain.
They played an attractive brand of rugby, with Dan Carter stamping his authority on the competition and becoming the world's top First-Five. Outside him, the dangerous Crusaders backline were a handful for all opposition, especially Rico Gear, who ran in 15 tries in just 13 games.
After dropping just two games all season, the Crusaders put on a clinic in the semifinal where they dispatched the Hurricanes 47-7, a performance that was typical of how they played all season.
A very good team, but as far as championship winners go, they remain a middle of the road team who won in typical Crusaders style.
8. 2001 Brumbies
The first team from outside of New Zealand to win the Super 12, the Brumbies won the 2001 Super 12 in convincing fashion with a 36-6 win in the Final over the Sharks.
In fact, 2001 was the only season where no New Zealand team was present in the playoff stages. It was however, the second season in a row where the Brumbies would finish top of the table, again giving them home advantage.
A 30-6 win over the Reds in the semifinal saw them cruise into the Final where they would make their home ground advantage count against a Sharks side who were completely blown off the park by a rampant Brumbies side.
They played in a similar way to the team of 2004, but this team was even more dominant. They were clearly the best team in the competition on attack and defence, leading the competition both in points for and against.
Once again, Stephen Larkham and George Gregan were the main men, while Andrew Walker and Joe Roff were both in great form, finishing many-an-opportunity.
Also once again, this came from the ability to recycle the ball quickly to allow their backs to let loose against unorganised defences.
The 2001 Brumbies slip to eighth on these rankings due to the fact that they dropped three games, but such was the dominance of their performances during the finals, they earn the middle spot amongst the list of champions.
7. 1996 Blues
On paper the 1996 Blues were one of the top sides in the history of Super Rugby. And they certainly did play that way at times, as was evidenced with their blistering form in the playoffs.
They boasted arguably the most dangerous back three of any Super Rugby team in Adrian Cashmore, Jonah Lomu and the flyer Joeli Vidiri.
To go with this, they four All Black inside backs, allowing them to create space for their flyers out wide.
Up front they boasted an All Black forward pack, consisting of six All Black starters.
But it wasn't all smooth running. They did drop three games, including a 51-13 loss to the Reds, a game where the Reds ran in try after try and the Blues had answer.
It is because of this that they fall to seven on this list.
Dominant performances in the finals see that they don't fall any lower however.
A 48-11 win over Northern Transvaal in the semifinal where they ran in eight tries placed them as firm favourites for the final, with the two flyers, Jonah and Joeli, in rampant form.
They would go onto produce a similar performance in the final, where they beat Natal 45-21, in what was one of the most dominant final performances in Super Rugby history.
6. 2010 Bulls
The Bulls were clearly the best team the whole way through the 2010 season. Such was their dominance, they were able to rest their top players for their final round-robin match, as they were already guaranteed the top spot.
It was a win built on a strong forward pack, that were very good at set piece time, while also being very good at the rolling maul.
In Fourie Du Preez they had the form player of the competition, while Morne Steyn gained territory with his massive boot and used his radar accurate goal kicking to pile up the points. Steyn would finish with 263 points, 96 more than the next person.
At home they were unbeaten, but succumbed to the Blues and Reds on the road.
The Blues brought a physical game, in which they exposed the Bulls forward pack, raising questions of whether they had what it took.
But such was the spirit of this Bulls side, they got back up and proved their critics wrong, holding off a Stormers side which had become renowned for it's physicality around the field.
5. 2006 Crusaders
"It was the best game I never saw."
That was what the public made of the 2006 Super 14 Final. A heavy fog set in for the game and it was almost impossible to see the action from afar. Even the television could only use it's low cameras.
But regardless of the conditions, it was the Crusaders sixth championship and it came on the back of an outstanding season.
2006 was the first year the competition included 14 teams, meaning there were two extra games. This makes it even more impressive that the Crusaders were able to go through the round-robin with a record of 11 wins, one loss and one draw.
Not only did they win these games, most of them were won convincingly. They were ran in try after try on attack, while also being very good on defence, as the Crusaders always are.
The side included 17 All Blacks and in the Final fielded an All-All Black Starting XV. It was a much closer affair in the Final, but a Casey Laulala try midway through the second half sealed the deal and saw the Crusaders claim their sixth championship.
4. 2009 Bulls
The most convincing of the Bulls three championships came in 2009 after a 61-17 win over the Chiefs in the Final.
Like 2010, the Bulls went unbeaten at home, but went through a rough patch on the road, losing three games in four weeks. Although it must be considered, they were carrying injuries to some key players at this stage.
The thing that separated this team from the 2010 Bulls team was that they had the services of Bryan Habana on the wing, the best finisher in the world during these years, while in 2010 they didn't look to move the ball in the same way as they didn't possess a finisher in the same class as Habana.
Despite this, the win was built on the same grounds of the 2010 win. They had a very good forward pack who dominated set piece. Through Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha they had the two form locks, while Pierre Spies was a beast running with the ball.
Fourie Du Preez was outstanding, showing why he was the best back in the world that year, while outside him the world was introduced to Morne Steyn and his accurate boot.
The fact that they dropped three games holds them back from taking one of the top three places on the list, but with a 61-17 win against the next best team, it's hard to take much else away from them.
3. 2003 Blues
The 2003 Blues lost just one game on their way to a 21-17 win over the defending champion Crusaders.
They were a quality team all over the field, possessing the ability to play a tight game, but also being deadly in the backs.
If the Blues back-three of the mid-1990's was the most dangerous of all time, the 2003 Blues certainly had the fastest and possibly provided the most flair. Doug Howlett was shunted to fullback, but was still brilliant, Rupeni Caucaunibuca had the best season of his career, while a guy called Joe Rokocoko announced himself to the world and quickly became known as 'the rocket man'. They also had the services of Rico Gear, a very good player himself.
So often Blues teams have this flair out wide but are unable to use it effectively. But 2003 was different. They had a very good backline who made good decisions, all spurring from the exciting play of Carlos Spencer, who had the best season of his controversial career.
In the forwards, Xavier Rush led from the front, while Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock all had breakout seasons, laying a good platform for their exciting backs to work their magic.
To illustrate the Blues dominance in 2003, their points difference was plus-208. The next best was plus-97. This in itself speaks volumes.
It took a spirited effort from a Highlanders side to topple these men, in what many call the Highlanders greatest game ever.
This holds them back from the top two, but make no mistake, this was a truly great Blues team and their backline was second to none.
2. 1997 Blues
The 1996 team slid on these rankings due to three losses during the season, namely a 50 point drubbing from the Reds.
The 1997 team had none of that. After drawing in South Africa in their first game, they went unbeaten for the rest of the season to go back-to-back.
They got better and better as the season went on and like the previous year, delivered two dominant performances in the semifinal and final.
Playing much the same way as they did in 1996, they looked to use their dangerous backs and with the addition of Brian Lima, they were lethal with ball in hand, scoring eight four-try bonus points.
Despite being held to just two tries in the final by a good Brumbies outfit, the Blues were still able to run out winners 23-7 on the back of an outstanding performance from Michael Jones.
I could go on about this team. But I think we should let it's record speak for itself. The first team to go unbeaten in a Super Rugby season.
1. 2002 Crusaders
Unbeaten. 13 wins and zero losses.
In typical Crusaders fashion, they started slow and built up to come right by finals time. Only this time a slow start just meant a few close wins, rather than dropping a few early games as in previous years.
They entered the season as favourites, boasting 18 All Blacks and 1 Fijian in Marika Vunibaka.
So many teams have promised on paper and failed to deliver, but this wasn't the case here. Their tight five gained dominance up front, which allowed their looseforwards to be effective around the field. Richie McCaw was excellent scavenging, while captain Reuben Thorne got through an unbelievable amount of work.
The Justin Marshall-Andrew Mehrtens nine-ten combination controlled the game, while midfield and outside backs finished off.
Although their whole season was great, undoubtedly their best performance and possibly the best performance in Super Rugby history, came when they beat the Waratahs 96-19 the week before the semifinals. And this was no mug Waratahs side, qualifying third for the semifinals. But they had no answer as a rampant Crusaders ran in 13 tries in a display of true champagne rugby.
They would go on to defeat the Brumbies 31-13 in the Final, where Caleb Ralph ran in two tries, Marika Vunibaka one and the reliable boot of Andrew Mehrtens kicked them home.
Never before was their a team so dominant, and there hasn't been since either. It seems unlikely any team will ever win every game again. And for that, the 2002 Crusaders truly deserve their crown as the greatest of great Super Rugby teams.