Super Rugby is Back!

Posted: February 14, 2014 in Southern Hemisphere
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For the uninitiated, Super Rugby is a prestigious international competition featuring three conferences of five teams each from New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. Each team plays every other team in its own national conference twice, and plays four of the five teams in the other two conferences once. The three conference winners, as well as the other three teams with the most points (4 for a win, 1 for scoring 4 or more tries, 1 for losing by 7 or fewer points) advance to the playoffs.

The competition makes its long-awaited return Saturday morning (Eastern time) with two South African derbies. The teams from New Zealand and Australia will begin play next week, except for the Melbourne Rebels, who begin play in week 3.

First up, the Cheetahs host the Lions in Bloemfontein. The Lions were not in the competition last year, but earned their way back in by beating the Kings in a promotion/relegation playoff. (Today, the South African Rugby Union [SARU] eliminated that playoff because the competition is being restructured in conjunction with a new TV rights deal, and SARU is adamant about having 6, and possibly even 7, South African franchises in Super Rugby for 2015.)  Meanwhile, the Cheetahs surprised many by making the playoffs last year, losing narrowly to eventual finalists the Brumbies. They won over many neutrals by playing an exciting, attacking brand of rugby, and hopefully that will continue this year. Flyhalf Johan Goosen returns to lead the backline – he missed most of last season due to a knee ligament injury. The Cheetahs will also be hoping that fullback Willie le Roux can maintain the form he showed on international duty with the Springboks – he is a major counterattacking threat from anywhere on the field.

Don’t count the Lions out though – many pundits and fans made that mistake with the Kings last year. They will need to rely on the experience of veterans like Franco van der Merwe, Warren Whiteley, and Deon van Rensburg. It is a tough ask to go to Bloemfontein for their first match back in Super Rugby, but I would not be surprised to see the Lions claim some scalps back home in Johannesburg.

While Cheetahs v Lions should be a fairly open game, Sharks v Bulls looks set to be an all-out forward battle. The Durban forecast (hot and very humid), combined with these two teams’ natural styles, means the match is unlikely to feature much running rugby. The Sharks are rightly favored – their pack features 7 Springboks, including the current Springbok front row of Tendai (Beast) Mtawarira and the brothers du Plessis (Bismarck and Jannie), rising star Pieter-Steph du Toit, and the sheer power of Willem Alberts. Meanwhile, the Bulls’ pack is as weak as it has been in years. The backs look fairly even, although the presence of Springbok flyhalf Patrick Lambie might just give the edge to the Sharks in that department as well. But that’s why they play the game. Expect a brutally physical encounter that will be closer than it appears on paper.

Below, some of the best tries from last year’s competition:


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