Super Rugby Aotearoa, Round One - Teams and Predictions
THE RETURN OF THE MACK: And just like that Super Rugby Aotearoa is back for its second edition and it all kicks off in Dunedin on Friday, with the Highlanders hosting the Crusaders.
The champions Crusaders will be brimming with confidence against Highlanders in Dunedin after beating their South Island rivals in five of their last six meetings.
Scott Robertson’s men won last season at a canter, adding to the record 10 Super Rugby titles already in the Christchurch club’s trophy cabinet.
Unsurprisingly, bookies have them as short-priced favourites for this year’s competition, which is slightly longer than last year with 10 regular-season rounds and a final between the top two teams on the ladder.
It will also be followed by a six-week trans-Tasman competition featuring teams from Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, giving a possible glimpse into the tournament’s post-pandemic future.
The other round one match is on Saturday and features Hurricanes against last year’s surprise package Auckland Blues in the capital.
The once-mighty Blues finally ended years of underachievement when they finished runners-up to the Crusaders in 2020, their best result since 2003, when the Aucklanders won the last of their three titles.
But they will be without playmaker Beauden Barrett after the two-time world player of the year exercised an option in his contract allowing him to play in Japan this year while remaining available for All Black selection.
The Hurricanes have also lost a key player to a big-money Japanese club contract, with scrumhalf TJ Perenara signing for Osaka-based NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes.
Chiefs, who have a bye this week, undoubtedly enter the season with the most to prove after failing to win a single match in last year’s competition.
Coach Warren Gatland’s highly anticipated return to his hometown team fell flat, with some critics blaming conservative tactics for the results.
Gatland is away this season, coaching a British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa that remains in the balance due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In his absence, temporary replacement Clayton McMillan must attempt to take over and build a credible challenge.
With the likes of All Blacks captain Sam Cane in the forwards and Anton Lienert-Brown in the backline, former provincial coach McMillan has talented players at his disposal.
But whether he will out-do Gatland and unlock their potential remains to be seen.
*Article continues below…
All Blacks galore
In terms of team news, twelve All Blacks will be in action in Friday’s opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium, with the Crusaders naming a stacked line-up for the encounter.
Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett is back in the starting line-up having missed last year’s competition with a foot injury, while new All Black Cullen Grace gets the nod at No 8 against Marino Mikaele-Tu’u who had an impressive 2020 campaign with the Highlanders.
Into his fifth season in the role, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson said a lot of his attention had been on keeping his winning combination inspired and excited this season.
“I’ve done a lot of work with the leadership group in the off-season on how we can be better with our game management and dealing with big moments,” he said.
Battle of the Brothers
In Saturday’s fixture, Hurricanes take on the Blues, which has been advertised as a family feud between the Ardie and Julian Savea versus Rieko and Akira Ioane.
Ardie Savea will captain the Hurricanes in his 100th cap for the side.
It’s certainly an extra special occasion for the Savea family as Ardie’s older sibling Julian will line up for his first game for the Hurricanes since 2018.
While three debutants and nine All Blacks are included in the Blues line-up to travel to Wellington for the opener.
Both starting props will make their debuts in All Black Nepo Laulala and Auckland’s James Lay, as well as Auckland loose forward Adrian Choat who is in the reserves.
“This is going to be a massive challenge for all teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa,” Blues head coach Leon MacDonald said.
“Both us and the Canes have some big aggressive forwards and strong running backs, so this game should be an absolute thriller,”
Friday, February 27
Highlanders v Crusaders
(Forsyth barr Stadium, Dunedin – Kick-off: 19.00 06.00 GMT)
The Crusaders have won nine of their last 10 completed Super Rugby matches against the Highlanders, including their last six in succession – the last and only time they won more in succession against the Dunedin – based side was a seven-match span from February 2002 to April 2007.
The Crusaders have won 10 of their last 11 completed Super Rugby matches, despite trailing at half time on the day in four of the last five games in that span.
The Crusaders have scored the first try on the day in six of their last seven Super Rugby away matches; they have gone on to win the last four games in that span.
The Crusaders led Super Rugby Aotearoa for points scored (31), metres gained (475), defenders beaten (28) and offloads (11) per game in 2020.
Aaron Smith (Highlanders) made six try assists in Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020, two more than any other player.
Head to head:
@rugby365com: Crusaders by ten points
Highlanders: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Connor Garden-Bachop, 13 Ngatungane Punivai, 12 Patelesio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Regan, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Hugh Renton
Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Dallas McLeod, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (captain), 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Chay Fihaki
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser & James Doleman
TMO: Brendon Pickerill
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) February 23, 2021
Saturday, February 27
Hurricanes v Blues
(Sky Stadium, Wellington – Kick-off: 19.05, 06.05 GMT)
The Hurricanes have won only one of their last three Super Rugby matches against the Blues, after enjoying a nine-game winning run against them prior.
The Blues have won nine of their last 11 completed Super Rugby matches; the Hurricanes one of the two sides to hand them a defeat in that stretch (also Crusaders)
The Hurricanes have opened a Super Rugby campaign with a victory just once in the last four seasons, that lone triumph a 20-19 win over the NSW Waratahs to begin 2019.
The Hurricanes scored eight tries starting possession from a scrum in Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2020, double the amount of any other side via this method.
Caleb Clarke (Blues) has scored a try in each of his last two Super Rugby matches against the Hurricanes, also making 18 carries, five clean breaks and beating nine defenders across that stretch.
Head to head:
@rugby365com: Hurricanes by three points
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Billy Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Jonathan Taumateine, 8 Devan Flanders, 7 Ardie Savea (captain), 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Asafo Aumua, 1 Fraser Armstrong.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Xavier Numia, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 21 Luke Campbell, 22 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 23 Salesi Rayasi.
Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Harry Plummer, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Sam Nock; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 James Lay.
Replacements: 16 Luteru Tolai, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Tom Robinson, 21 Adrian Choat, 22 Jonathan Ruru, 23 Tanielu Tele’a.
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, James Doleman
TMO: Brendon Pickerill
*Additional source: AFP & SuperRugby
* Stats courtesy of Stats Perform