The big questions to be answered in 2012 Super Rugby
James Mortimer superrugby.com
We take a look at some queries that will be revealed in the months ahead…
Can the Reds go back-to-back?
Only the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls have successfully defended a Super Rugby crown – the seven-time champions on more than one occasion – and the Reds will have 14 hungry teams chasing them down, meaning that the ‘ambush’ some felt the Queenslanders delivered over the last two seasons won’t occur again.
The early loss of Quade Cooper will test their depth, while the canny coaching of Ewen McKenzie will come under the microscope as most opposition back room teams will have gone through the Reds game with painstaking detail to see what they implemented to conquer the 2011 Super Rugby field.
With a heavy number of Wallabies, expect captain James Horwill and strike players Digby Ioane, as well as instrumental scrumhalf Will Genia, to take it up a notch as they are key players not only for their country – but for the champions to again conquer the South Hemisphere.
Will the Crusaders be more formidable with permanent headquarters?
Rugby League Park may not be ready to go from season kick off, but Air New Zealand will receive less business from the Crusaders this year as they are given the gift of home comforts, something taken away from them last year with the devastating February earthquakes.
This didn’t derail the Crusaders much, still winning the New Zealand Conference, while early predictions that the travel weary mob would suffer against a rested Stormers in Cape Town proved unfounded, while the resilient red and blacks almost came down to spoil the Reds party, if it wasn’t for a brilliant score by Genia.
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter’s services won’t be available until later in the season, but even the losses of arguably the two best players in the world hasn’t stopped momentum in season’s past – although the fact they haven’t won the title for a record three seasons might be something that irks the regular championship winners.
Will the South African style change this season?
On everyone’s lips is the exuberance and belief displayed by the Lions during their Currie Cup charge to the title, while the Cheetahs explosive all out attacking game saw them finish just one point behind the Crusaders as Super Rugby’s most potent offensive outfit in 2011.
The grinding, kick dominated, defensive heavy and forward orientated classical styles seen via the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers over recent years – ergo the Springboks pragmatic approach – could take a backseat this season as the Lions and Cheetahs could stray from a more recognised South African methodology and express themselves.
While this may be a blueprint more suited to New Zealand or Australian teams, the Johannesburg and Free State outfits showed they were able to play like their SANZAR rivals – with the John Mitchell and Carlos Spencer connection evident in the Lions, while the Cheetahs gleefully directed runners everywhere during their late season try scoring spree.
Will the recent contenders break their droughts?
The Stormers, Blues, Waratahs and Sharks all finished in the top four last season – and all franchises could be somewhat aggrieved that they couldn’t push all the way.
The Stormers contested the 2010 final, the Waratahs have featured in more Super Rugby Finals Series of late than any other team, the Blues (New Zealand’s biggest rugby region) will kick off proceedings in the ninth year without the title, while the Sharks have contested more deciders than any other side without claiming the crown.
All four sides have good reason to remain confident coming into 2012, although the trick for the beaten Super Rugby Final Series sides is to find that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that has prevented them from going all the way, although the ability to rise to the occasion during sudden death matches will surely be at the top of the list.
What to expect from our newest franchise, the Melbourne Rebels, in year two?
While they finished with the trophy-less wooden spoon in the maiden year, one expects the challenge from the Victorian team to be more apparent with twelve months of on-and-off field systems bedded in, while the recruitment of glamour Wallabies backs James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale will add prestige to their attack.
Their offensive approach, heralded throughout the system as a hybrid league style system utilising rapid ball from the breakdown, will not be a focus point for the team or the fans as the Rebels attempt to plug one of the leakiest defensive screens in Super Rugby history.
Unwanted records came Melbourne’s way as their defence at times was barely rudimentary, but if it is indeed merely attitude and technique, then with a better understanding as to what to expect – predict a stronger blockade per say and AAMI Park this season.
Are the Bulls and Hurricanes rebuilding?
It wouldn’t be unfair for Hurricanes supporters to become very humble when mentioned in the same sentence as a team that dominated the ‘Super 14 era’ and has won three championships since 2007, but both are experiencing overhauls (although individually unique) unlike any other team.
The Canes deserve reference as their four Super Rugby Final Series appearances since 2005 (with a fifth placed finish in 2007) is one of the better conversion rates of any team in the field, without of course winning it outright.
The Bulls has come from the inevitable retirement and exit of blue blooded legends and Springboks World Cup winners that saw them drift slightly back to the pack last year, and the loss of so many once-in-a-generation players usually predates a period where a dominant franchise needs to naturally start all over again.
The Hurricanes shift began with their most experienced coach (Colin Cooper) being replaced by Mark Hammet last year, and this season more All Blacks have departed than has been seen at any time from a single kiwi franchise beyond the now infamous 2007 post World Cup New Zealand player exodus. The former Crusaders assistant coach clearly felt that despite a glittering roster failure to win a title demanded dramatic change, and this season the men from the capital wield one of the least experienced Super Rugby squads.
Will the Reds new trend of youth reign supreme at the business end?
Rugby World Cups, the highest table of competition for rugby, reveal an almost unbreakable trend of being won by the most experienced team, and this formula has by and large filtered through to Super Rugby throughout the years.
Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies and Bulls championship vintages were often built with experience and a healthy representation of test players – and while the Reds may have been the Wallabies most prolific franchise by mid-2011, this certainly wasn’t the case as the season began.
McKenzie and Queensland imbued their youthful squad with the unbreakable confidence and team spirit that allowed them to break into the elusive Super Rugby winner’s circle, and whether the re-established Reds production line can continue to field young men who can compete on our grandest stage will remain to be seen.
Or will the veterans present throughout other squads restore the status quo?
Who will remain strong, and who will buck under the pressure?
With the exception of a precious bye or two, the week in, week out nature of the competition has proven to be arduous – and while the season will break for the June Internationals for the first time in 2012 – the teams that win are often those who win the battle of attrition, but more importantly display their wares throughout the season.
Last year the Highlanders started strongly before fading, while the Bulls charge came in the back end of the season, but even despite their impressive respective runs, both came seventh and eighth outside of qualification for the Super Rugby Finals Series.
Even short runs of form loss hurt title contenders – with the Blues losing four of their last five, the Waratahs losing back-to-back matches three times, while the Sharks lost five of eight mid-season – and such ‘blips’ rarely lend themselves to a championship ring.
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