Preview: Super Rugby - Round One, Part One
TIME FOR CHANGE: The SANZAAR tournament launches its 25th season on Friday.
However, the silver anniversary will lose its shine with the absence of many stars who lit up the World Cup only a few months ago.
In the last season of the cumbersome conference system and one that will say sayonara to the no longer wanted Japanese Sunwolves, the talent vacuum will be highlighted from game one when the Blues host the Chiefs.
The seasons, as is tradition, gets underway with a tasty all-New Zealand derby – when the Blues host the Chiefs at Eden Park, in Auckland.
That is followed by an all-Australian derby – the Brumbies against the Reds in Canberra.
Friday’s action is completed with an all-South African derby – the Sharks hosting the Bulls at Kings Park, in Durban.
We look at all the Friday matches!
Friday, January 31
Blues v Chiefs
(Eden Park, Auckland – Kick-off: 19.05; 06.05 GMT)
The Blues’ star signing from the off-season Beauden Barrett – the All Black playmaker and double World Player of the Year – has an extended holiday written into his new contract and won’t be seen until mid-April.
It’s not just the Blues who are suffering, as the Chiefs’ Brodie Retallick, another former World Player of the Year, has been excused Super Rugby so he can play in Japan – but still be available for the All Blacks.
Despite missing his star recruit, Blues coach Leon Macdonald was upbeat ahead of the season-opener.
He said he was pleased with the hard work that has gone into a truncated pre-season and the team is excited to get the season underway on home turf.
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“The boys are proud to represent the franchise, the jersey and our region in this new season, and we are excited about the season ahead,” Macdonald said.
“Selection for this team is probably the toughest one that I have had in my time at the Blues, with a number of other players pushing hard for this first team.
“We have been pleased with the level of commitment, competition and performance, and especially from a number of new players to our franchise.”
New Chiefs coach Warren Gatland, back in New Zealand after 12 years as Wales coach, also downplayed the loss of a couple of star players – Retallick and injured utility back Damian Damian McKenzie.
He said he was looking forward to seeing a competitive battle between the northern rivals.
“We have an exciting squad and we believe the team we have chosen reflects this,” Gatland said.
“It is a great opportunity for our rookies to pull on the Chiefs jersey for the first time in what is expected to be a great competitive derby between two rival sides.
“We know the Blues will be a good sturdy challenge first up but one the boys and fans are excited about.”
Prediction: The Blues picked up a 23-8 win in their last Super Rugby game against the Chiefs, snapping a 15-game winless run against them. They’ve not had consecutive wins against the Chiefs since March 2011. The Blues have led at half-time in each of their last three home games against the Chiefs in Super Rugby; though, they’ve managed just one win in that time. The Blues have lost four of their last six season openers in Super Rugby, including their last two on the bounce; only one of their two wins in that span came against fellow New Zealand opposition. The Chiefs were winless away from home in New Zealand derbies last Super Rugby season, and haven’t won such a fixture since June 2018 against the Highlanders. The Chiefs have lost their last two season openers in Super Rugby, conceding a total of 75 points across those defeats; they had managed five consecutive wins in such fixtures prior to that span, however. The Blues have lost only one of their last seven Super Rugby games on home soil, with three of their five wins in that period coming by a single-digit margin. The Blues have finished each of their last two Super Rugby games with a goal kicking success rate of 100 percent, as many times as they had done so in their 15 games prior. The Chiefs conceded just two cards (both yellow) last Super Rugby campaign, fewer than any other team; indeed, their 7.9 infringements conceded per game were the second-fewest of any team in the competition. Beauden Barrett (Blues) has created 16 tries via kicks in the last decade, five more than any other player; indeed, his overall tally of 60 try assists in that time are the second-most of any player (Aaron Smith –77). Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs) made 34 offloads last Super Rugby campaign, eight more than any other player, including five in Round 9 last season against the Blues, his joint-most ever in a single Super Rugby game. It will be a hard-fought battle, with the Chiefs to sneak a one-score – five points or less.
Blues: 15 Matt Duffie, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Thomas Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Tony Lamborn, 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Tom Robinson, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Emoni Narawa.
Chiefs: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Quinn Tupaea, 12 Alex Nankivell, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Sam Cane, 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Tyler Ardron, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Atu Moli, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 20 Pita Gus Sowakula, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Dan Waenga (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Brumbies v Reds
(GIO Stadium, Canberra – Kick-off: 19.15; 18.15 Brisbane time; 08.15 GMT)
The Brumbies are rated the best bet to end Australia’s tournament drought – which stretches back to the Waratahs in 2014.
However, Brumbies coach Dan McKellar has lost 157 Test caps worth of experience with the departures of David Pocock, Christian Lealiifano, Henry Speight (now with the Reds), Rory Arnold and Sam Carter after the World Cup.
The Reds who have picked up James O’Connor and Speight, to join Jordan Petaia and Samu Kerevi in a potent looking backline.
Rather than splash out on buying big-name replacements, McKellar said he had confidence in his younger squad members to fill the void.
“To bring someone in externally to train them up on what’s expected of them on-field and off-field, there’s a whole lot of work there and you’re not necessarily going to get it right,” McKellar said.
“So we’ll back the young guys. They’re young guys but we’re backing them because they’re ready to go and they’ll be ready to go on the 31st.”
Reds coach Brad Thorn admitted it is a “tough start” against the Brumbies in Canberra.
“It is always a tough place to win down there,” the dual-code former international said.
“We’re excited for the season to start.
“Dalby and Gladstone had us for two [pre-season] trial games, which were important hit-outs leading into the season.
“Five guys could make their Queensland debuts on Friday, which is an awesome thing to recognise.
“They’ve worked hard during the pre-season and deserve their selection.”
Prediction: Each of the last seven Super Rugby games between the Brumbies and the Reds have been won by the home team on the day; the Reds’ last away win to the Brumbies came in February 2014. The Brumbies have won their last six regular season Super Rugby games on the bounce; the last and only previous time they won more was a seven-game stretch from May 2001 to March 2002. The Reds have won only four of their last 32 Super Rugby games played away from home, with only one of those wins coming against fellow Australian opposition. The Brumbies have gained more than 400 metres in each of their last two Super Rugby games against Australian opposition, as many times as they had done so in their eight such games prior. The Reds’ Samu Kerevi (220) was the only player to make 200+ carries last Super Rugby season, while his 71 defenders beaten and 26 offloads were the second-most of any player in either category. The Brumbies remain favourites, despite the Reds’ impressive pre-season form and we suggest the Brumbies to produce a late score to take their winning margin into double figures – 10 to 12 points.
Brumbies: 15 Tom Banks, 14 Solomone Kata, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Irae Simone, 11 Tom Wright, 10 Noah Lolesio, 9 Joe Powell, 8 Pete Samu, 7 Tom Cusack, 6 Rob Valetini, 5 Murray Douglas, 4 Darcy Swain, 3 Allan Alaalatoa (captain), 2 Folau Fainga’a, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Connal McInerney, 17 Harry Lloyd, 18 James Slipper, 19 Caderyn Neville, 20 Will Miller, 21 Ryan Lonergan, 22 Bayley Kuenzle, 23 Andy Muirhead.
Reds: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Jock Campbell, 13 Jordan Petaia, 12 James O’Connor, 11 Henry Speight, 10 Isaac Lucas, 9 Tate McDermott, 8 Harry Wilson, 7 Liam Wright (captain), 6 Angus Scott-Young, 5 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, 4 Angus Blyth, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Brandon Paenga-Amosa, 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Dane Zander, 18 Feao Fotuaika, 19 Izack Rodda, 20 Seru Uru, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Hunter Paisami.
Referee: AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)
Sharks v Bulls
(Kings Park, Durban – Kick-off: 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
Most of the Springbok squad that lifted the World Cup in Japan last year are now scattered throughout Europe and Japan.
The Bulls, the best of the four South African franchises last year, have said goodbye to six of their World Cup heroes – including Lodewyk de Jager, Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Rudolph Snyman, Schalk Brits and Jessie Kriel.
The Sharks are without also without several Boks, including Tendai Mtawarira (one of the World Cup stars) and the Du Preez brothers – Robert junior, Dan and Jean-Luc.
Bulls coach Pote Human suggested this week that just making the play-offs would be a success for the Pretoria-based team.
“It is a new era with a new group coming through, youngsters that are very hungry,” Human said.
“I would love to make the play-offs, but I know it will be difficult.”
He admitted Super Rugby could be a rude awakening for his young players.
“We have enjoyed a strong pre-season, with few injuries which have allowed us to select our strongest available team to take on a well-oiled Sharks outfit,” Human added.
“We have a job to do in Durban and we are not taking it lightly.
“The Sharks have proved time and time again that they are a dangerous team if underestimated. We are going into the match with level heads and a battle plan in hand.”
Sharks flyhalf Curwin Bosch said there is a “strong vibe” in the Durban camp.
“We’re all looking forward to Super Rugby kicking off.”
With Bosch settled in the No.10 jersey, he recognises this as an opportunity to entrench himself.
“For me to grow in confidence at 10, I need game time there, that’s how a player gets better and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Opposite him is 35-year-old Springbok Morné Steyn, who returned to Pretoria after a stint in France and Bosch admits that Steyn will be an important factor for the men in blue.
“Morné brings a lot of experience to his side, they’ve lost quite a few players overseas and because he’s such a good kicker, we know our discipline and game management need to be really sharp this weekend.
“But we’re going into this weekend’s game with a plan and if we stick to it, the result will take care of itself.”
Prediction: The Bulls are undefeated in their last nine Super Rugby games against the Sharks; a 16-all draw in March 2016 their only blemish amid that run. The Sharks will begin their Super Rugby campaign at home for the first time since 2015; they’ve won five of their last seven fixtures when beginning the season on home soil. The Bulls won five of their six South African derbies last Super Rugby season; it was their most derby wins in a single campaign since 2013 (seven wins). The Sharks commanded more than 20 minutes of time in possession in their final two games of the 2019 Super Rugby season; they had not previously done so since July 2013 (against the Bulls). Cornal Hendricks (Bulls) has scored five tries in his last six Super Rugby games – including three tries in his last two games – after not having scored in any of his first eight appearances for the Bulls. Not much to choose between these two sides and based on pre-season form the favourites tag goes to the home side – by a very narrow margin. The Sharks to win by five points.
Sharks: 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sibusiso Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (captain), 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Louis Schreuder, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Tyler Paul, 6 James Venter, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Ruben van Heerden, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Ox Nche.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 John-Hubert Meyer, 19 Le Roux Roets, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Boeta Chamberlain, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Burger Odendaal (C), 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Abongile Nonkontwana, 6 Jeandré Rudolph, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Replacements: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Ruan Nortje, 20 Ryno Pieterse, 21 Wian Vosloo, 22 Embrose Papier, 23 Manie Libbok.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Egon Seconds (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Compiled by Jan de Koning; additional reporting by AFP
* Stats provided by Opta Sports