Super Rugby 2018 Version Expectations

2019 Super Rugby squads announced
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What to expect? Frankly, none of us are fortune tellers. Often off the mark, sometimes close to it, but it is the common theme for many observers to make their predictions. No, the competition has variables now that make it tougher than ever to judge. So here is the Super Rugby 2018 version expectations.

As often, the rule of thumb is: you must start with New Zealand franchises. Not in any way is that dis-respectful to the other SANZAAR partners, or Japan. Winners of the last four consecutive competitions; it is out of respect that you consider NZ teams foremost.

Super Rugby history finals winners – NZ Teams = 15 titles

The expectations are that three or even four of those teams, could make the semifinals. How is that possible? With the new finals series structure, three conference quarterfinals places are guaranteed. The fourth ‘wildcard’ is the highest place finisher. That might see a Kiwi team securing that place, and then the scenario might play out: first NZ team wins, second NZ quarterfinals host also wins.

Then, it could be expected that the Super Rugby 2018 quarterfinals might see either the African and Australian conference teams lose their home knockout match – not a guarantee, as the home advantage will always apply in football – but it is a possibility.

Again, now we are getting into the realm of reading into the future [which Last Word on Rugby have not yet had our tea leaves examined sorry] and I’m not one to make forecasts. So, where is the best place to start? One of the key stages in the championships history, are the away fixtures.

Super Rugby 2018 Version Expectations – Away Fixtures

Teams whom begin their campaign away from home are usually at a disadvantage. Naturally too, as they will have to face their very first full-contact/competitive match away from home. And even when fans may consider the opposition of lesser strength, it is not an easy proposition.

The Hurricanes are offshore for their opening two matches [Week Two and Three] and will need their team culture and established players to help them through. Missing Dane Coles, Ricky Riccatelli must show his maturity to compliment the tight forwards. Brad Shields and Ardie Savea then provide the leadership and command.

TJ Perenara is the key component, as he will be for the entire campaign. Very close to being the first-pick All Black, his sharp skills, eagerness and kicking can help his team in Pretoria, and then a week later in Buenos Aires. While Beauden Barrett can direct the backline, it is TJ who runs the ship.

On the opposite side, teams like the Jaguares and Brumbies begin their season with double-header away games. However, after Week One, the Argentine side have slipped one match already. Losing 28-20 to the Stormers, it makes the following game against the Lions this weekend, so critical.

The Stormers then make their trip to New Zealand, visiting the Crusaders and Highlanders. If they side can return with four to six points, it would be deemed a stunning success. However, their recent history shows they struggle when away from the Cape.

Away games do not make up 50% of the schedule, but they can be as much as ‘worth’ 50% of a sides competition points. Defending at home, the advantage means less teams will lose, so the points on offer – from Week One – will always be worth much more.

Admittedly, the best traveling team has to be the Crusaders. They are comfortable with the expectation that an away win is possible. One of the only teams to win championships on foreign soil – see 2017 – it is in the franchises culture to survive, and thrive, on the road.

2018 Expectations – Early Round Victories

The best advice that any Super Rugby 2018 team can live by, is play the season ‘one game at a time’. While some have higher expectations than others, that all comes down to the weekly schedule.

Early rounds will see some great local derby games. The Crusaders v Chiefs will hold much attention. How will new coach Colin Cooper go? Have the Crusaders invested well, in bringing some Irish Luck; in the form of Ronan O’Gara, into the coaching group?

And in Australia, the Melbourne Rebels play three fellow conference teams inside the opening four weeks. Their big test, to justify the lingering question ‘were they the right team to retain, above the Western Force?’

And in Argentina, after their opening trip to Africa, the Jaguares enjoy four home games in a row at Vélez Sarsfield. With the confidence instilled, with the inclusion of forwards coach Mario Ledesma, the ‘Jags host the Hurricanes, Waratahs, Reds and the Lions. A collection of 10 or more points at that stage, will be invaluable for the South America teams expectations.

One strange scheduling concern though is, that no Trans-Tasman games occur until Week Seven. While the New Zealand teams face ferocious local derbies, mixed with offshore games in Africa and Argentina, the short flight over the Tasman is saved until six matches into the series. A very strange arrangement that permits Australia time to build into the season, before matching any NZ teams.

Outside Interference – Injuries, new Laws and All Black camps

One undeniable outcome from sport, is injury. It can occur even before teams are ready to play – Tim Nanai-Williams has been taken from the Chiefs team, during preseason. It is not something you expect….or at least ‘hope not to expect’. And the injuries might play a big part in the results.

Some players have not fully recovered, so the likes of Coles is yet to return. Eben Etzebeth is out for the Stormers, and Stephen Perofeta for the Blues. Others will have played little, including Nick Phipps of the Waratahs. So it lurks over each camp, and must be dealt with.

Another factor, are the 2018 law variations. Described by resident referee Scott MacLean, the changes to the scrum and ruckball/offside line, are important to understand. Players, as much as fans, need to respect the referees interpretation. And again, the onus is on the players to keep tackles away from the neck–or risk penalties or cards being awarded.

But an outside interference for NZ franchises only to deal with however, are the planned All Blacks camps. It might well still be one year out from the 2019 Japan Rugby World Cup, but head coach Steve Hansen has implored his Super Rugby coaches that he must utilize early-week camps for his squad. That could see players return only for a Captains run, before a fierce Super Rugby 2018 clash. At times, it could remove up to two dozen first-choice players from their Super Rugby preparations.

Undesirable, and like rugby commentator Phil Gifford wrote “if too many stars are missing from Super Rugby, the result won’t be pretty”. So if one desire is concurrent across all NZ Super Rugby fans minds, it is ‘please Steve, no injuries during these camps!’

Teams Expectations in Super Rugby 2018

Even the less fancied teams, all have expectations. Many will be in terms of performance and development. Not every franchise has the ability to reach the highest places, so having realistic expectations will help.

Inter-conference matches can often be a measure. For the newly crafted South African and Australian conferences, there will be traditional derby games, and new or relatively new conference games. Although in saying that, a match for the Sunwolves in Australia is ‘hardly a local derby’. But, if that side consider their expectations to win two or three of those match-ups, that could be a respectable expectation for Jamie Joseph.

For the Jaguares, they have two trips to South Africa to compete in. At the very beginning, and very end of the schedule. In between, they have a four week journey to Australia and New Zealand to compete in. So the expectations might be to rotate players, build depth and to possibly target the Rebels and Bulls/Sharks as possible away victories.

Even the Blues v Jaguares game in Week 11 is as important for both teams. With the South American fanbase in New Zealand expected to travel to Auckland, that could be a tremendous fixture. Expect music, dancing and cheers of joy if the Argentinian team can walk away with a victory.

It will ultimately come down to what the expectations are for the higher-ranked teams to be honest. The likes of the Lions, Stormers, Waratahs, Brumbies, and the NZ franchises. When they can meet their expectations, the opposition should be fearful. The Hurricanes have been highly placed for several consecutive years. With the motivation of ‘doing it for Boydey’ ringing in their ears, it will take much to restrain them.

Teams with HIGH Expectations:

  • Lions
  • Waratahs
  • Crusaders
  • Highlanders
  • Hurricanes

Teams with GOOD Expectations

  • ACT Brumbies
  • Stormers
  • Sharks
  • Chiefs
  • Blues
Teams with LESS Expectations
  • Reds
  • Melbourne Rebels
  • Sunwolves
  • Bulls
  • Jaguares

Does this mean that the above seeding’s can be viewed as finishing places? No, as anything is possible in Sport. A team like the Queensland Reds, inspired by their grizzly head coach Brad Thorn, could be unbeatable at home. Killing visitors opportunities, the threat of all home fixtures is that ‘the crowd boosts the hosts chances’. Leave a game too close and [quite possibly] the local hero steals a victory…or a Draw.

Expect some upsets, that is a near certainty. While not affecting the finals series, the Blues loss at Prince Chichibunomiya Memorial Stadium was an example. The Rebels defeating the Crusaders in 2015, and other memorable outcomes too, prove it can be done. So in the early stages of this Super Rugby 2018 version, expectations should be representative of where teams hope to be.

By the time we reach Week 16; before the International test window opens, whose expectations come true is still to be known. What is known is that we will all be set to enjoy to full start of the season this week.

And then……..that’s up to the teams involved in Super Rugby 2018. No predictions here sorry. We’ll leave others to reading their tea leaves.

 

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