Shane Nolan looks ahead to a great season of rugby from the southern hemisphere.
Thursday morning kicked off the new season of the world’s premier club rugby competition, as the Melbourne Rebels took on the Auckland Blues. Under Tana Umaga’s stewardship, the Blues have become far more competitive and despite being New Zealand’s weakest team they still finished last season with the same amount of points as any Aussie side. The addition of Sonny Bill Williams and the returning Ioane brothers from sevens will do much to further their improvement.
 
The dominance of the New Zealand conference looks set to continue. The Crusaders may have lost Nemani Nandolo but their pack full of All Blacks will keep up their performances. The Highlanders will look to reach the last four again, while the Hurricanes aim for back to back titles. With arguably the world’s best two players in Beauden Barret and Dane Coles they will be hard to defeat. Last season they had the tightest defence in the competition, conceding no try at the play-off stage. Any repeat will make real challengers hard to come by, although the Waikato Chiefs may offer the most. Last season’s best attack may have lost Seta Tamanivalu and SBW but they are not short of top class backs in the form of Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown and the most exciting star of Super Rugby in Damien McKenzie. If they can avoid the same injuries to the forwards as last season, then they will be very much in contention.
 
The Australian conference will be an extremely interesting, albeit less talented, affair. The return of Quade Cooper, Stephen Moore and George Smith to the Reds may give the Queenslanders something to cheer about, although whether these players alone can lift a very poor team is yet to be seen. The Force will be as lacklustre as usual, while a relatively unchanged Rebels side should continue their middle of the road form. The Brumbies should struggle with David Pocock’s sabbatical but may do a Crusaders and perform better with a less star studded line-up. The Waratahs have lost some big names also but can still field an exciting side. If they can fix their scrum then they should finish top, although it will be a tight conference, with probably only one team reaching the last eight.
 
The new sides, the Kings and the Sunwolves, will see little improvement, while South African rugby will hope for a far better showing than 2016. The Lions, the one shining light, will hope to build on last year’s final and become champions. They play an attractive style of rugby and will more than likely be South Africa’s best, maybe even only hope. The Cheetahs have a young squad that will not compete any time soon. They have also lost Lood de Jager to the Bulls, who also have the returning Handre Pollard and will be a strong side. It says much about the gulf between South African and New Zealand rugby that the new structure will decide so much. For many, the Bulls and the Stormers will struggle as they must face the New Zealand sides this year while the Sharks have the fortune of playing the much weaker Australian teams.
 
The return of Pat Lambie will give the Sharks a very good shot of making the play-offs again, and this year they will want to put up more of a fight. Finally, there is the Argentinian side, the Jaguars, who disappointed many last year with only four wins from fifteen. Despite fielding the back-bone of the national side, ill-discipline and lazy errors cost them dearly. A good look in the mirror should have them making solid progress. They possess a potent scrum and lineout while also having the southern hemisphere’s finest kicker in Nicholas Sanchez, not a bad base to build upon.
 
With an average of over six tries per game last season, expect another off-loading, line-breaking and try-scoring year of Super Rugby. Expect another domination by the New Zealand sides with the Chiefs being my favourite for the trophy. Hopefully the Australian and South African teams can be a bit more competitive and the Jaguars, in particular, can perform to their full potential.