After five months of rugby action, four teams that deserve to compete for the championship trophy, and four teams that SANZAAR is contractually obligated to put into the Super Rugby playoffs, will take the pitch and determine, once and for all (or until next February), which Southern Hemisphere club stands supreme.
Here’s a hint – it’s the Hurricanes. But still, the playoffs must be played and Australian and South African sides must be eliminated, so below we rank the teams by chance to take the title, and examine their path to glory.
- The Hurricanes
The reigning champs quite simply have the most talent of any squad in the competition. Two Barretts and two Saveas are a pretty good start, and when you add on Laumape, Aso, Milner-Scudder, Perenara and the rest of the crew, you’re talking about a first-class side.
But for the Canes, the true tipping point is going to be the return of Dane Coles, assuming his rumored recovery is, in fact, complete. Coles happens to be the best hooker on planet Earth, and while he’ll be rusty at the outset not having played since last year, remember that the Canes get what amounts to a warmup against the Brumbies in the first round. If Coles can use that match to knock of some rust, and then he approaches anything close to full form the rest of the way, the Canes are the odds-on favorites.
But, you might argue, the Canes have to travel to Australia in Round 1, and then to South Africa for the semis. For a team this good, the travel is more than offset by not having to play another Kiwi side until the final. And yes, there will be another Kiwi side in the final.
Fearless Prediction: They’re going to hoist the trophy again, and they’ll do the hoisting in Wellington, again.
2. The Crusaders
The gents from Christchurch nearly ran the table during the regular season, losing only the final day to the Canes. Equally as impressive, the managed many of those wins without Kieran Read, who is now back at full strength.
So clearly the Saders haven’t done anything wrong that would suggest ranking any side ahead of them, so how do they end up behind the Canes? Simple – the draw.
While the Canes can get to the final without playing another Kiwi side, because of their lost to the Canes last weekend, the Saders face the prospect of having to beat both the Highlanders and the Chiefs in order to reach the final. That, folks, is a brutal road.
It isn’t clear the Saders will get past the Highlanders (more on that shortly), and then to turn around and have to play the Chiefs right after, that ultimately may be too much to ask. Yes, both of those games would be at AMI Stadium, but I think I’d rather jump on a couple of planes like the Canes rather than run the Kiwi gauntlet as the Saders must.
Fearless Prediction: Vengeance goes to the Highlanders, who avenge their loss earlier this year in Christchurch.
3. The Highlanders
This is going to seem odd at first. The Landers will not play another home game, and would have to beat both the Saders and Chiefs on the road to reach the final. Still, the final is just where they are going to land. So how do they get there?
This is the most talented side in the competition not named the Canes. The two Smiths are among the best in the world at their respective positions, and they are joined in a back line that also includes All Blacks Waisake Naholo, Lima Sopoaga, and Malakai Fekitoa, as well as the dangerous Tevita Li and the versatile beast known as the Barracuda.
While this entire team has been beset by injury all year, the forward pack, in particular, has spent a ton of time in the medical tent. Fortunately, the Landers’ pack is probably about as healthy now as it has been all year, with Liam Squire and Dan Pryor among those finally rejoining the fray last week.
Despite all the injuries, and after a slow start that saw the Landers lose three of their first four games, the men from Dunedin have won 10 of their last 11, with the only loss coming on a miracle drop goal from the Crusaders in Christchurch. This is a dangerous, increasingly-healthy, high-performing bunch capable of beating anyone, anywhere. If they find some way past the Crusaders in Round 1, look out.
Fearless Prediction: The Southerners run the first two stages of the Kiwi gauntlet successfully, only to fall short in Wellington.
4. The Chiefs
Still waiting to see the Lions pop up on this list? Keep waiting. New Zealand clearly boasts the top four sides in the competition, and while they will spend a few weeks beating up on each other, you should nevertheless expect one of them to come out on top in the end.
The Chiefs are lead by, among others, an All Black leaving for Europe (Aaron Cruden), and one that’s rumored to be (Damian McKenzie). McKenzie might be the most dangerous ballcarrier in the entire competition.
This team is actually in an interesting spot – they will either get the benefit of getting to play a South African team in Round 1, or they will embarrass themselves by expanding upon their questionable play during their in-season tour of South Africa and become the first Kiwi team knocked out. I’m banking on the former, setting up an all-Kiwi showdown in the second round against either the Crusaders or Highlanders. The Chiefs are capable of beating either of those teams, but I tend to think they fall short in that one no matter the opponent.
Fearless Prediction: The Chiefs won’t be able to find their way past the semifinals, losing to either the Landers or Saders in Round 2.
5. The Lions
If you must pick a finalist from somewhere other than New Zealand, I guess you take these guys. Last year’s runners up topped the regular season table this year, and will play all of their playoff matches in Johannesburg. A nice reward to be certain, but one that wasn’t deserved.
This season, the Lions record against New Zealand competition was…..wait for it…..zero and zero. They played not one damn New Zealand team. In fact that last time we saw them play against a New Zealand team was in last year’s final in Wellington. The Lions put up a good fight in that one, but ultimately fell short.
This year, the reality of New Zealand dominance is going to set in earlier, even if the propagators of the dominance are the same characters that finished the Lions’ season last year. That’s right, Round 2 will almost certainly feature a visit from the reigning champs. Sure, this year’s match will be in Johannesburg, and yes, the Canes will have been traveling for two weeks, but no matter. The buzzsaw from Wellington is going to show up in Round 2 and lay waste to the Lions. No final this year.
Fearless Prediction: Round 2 thrashing.
6./7. Some Combination of the Sharks and Stormers
I guess if you’re going to have four games, you need eight teams. Otherwise, no need for these squads to show up. On a positive note, the fans in both Cape Town will get to see a Kiwi side play at a playoff level. As for Durban, there’s nothing for you here, sorry.
Fearless Prediction: Total devastation.
8. The Brumbies?
Watching the Aussie teams this year was like watching one of those funny video shows that basically devolve into one video after another of a dude getting hit in the nuts with something over and over again.
Nevertheless, the teams Down Under are entitled to one playoff participant, and so we get the Brumbies. They’ll be down by 100 at halftime, so maybe the Canes will get an early start on the road to South Africa and just get on a plane at half…it’s not like the Brumbies are going to score 100 in a half even playing against nobody.
Still, for those of you complaining that the Blues should have received this spot, they just lost to the Sunwolves, so no, we don’t need an appearance from them.
Fearless Prediction: It’s not nice to pick on the weakling.