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Crusaders remain the team to beat but outlook not so rosy for Highlanders and Force

By RugbyPass
Feleti Kaitu'u and the Crusaders. (Photos by Getty Images)

Super Rugby Pacific is set to return at the end of the month with the Crusaders and Chiefs kicking off the proceedings on February 24 in Christchurch.

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The opening match is a repeat of last year’s semi-final, while the top two Australian sides, the Brumbies and Waratahs, will square off later that evening.

Five RugbyPass writers, Ben Smith, Finn Morton, Hamish Bidwell, Nick Turnbull and Tom Vinicombe, have run their eyes over the new squads and the upcoming schedule and have dusted off their brains after a long off-season to answer some of the most important questions for the year ahead.

Which will be the best and worst New Zealand teams?

BS: The best New Zealand team will be the Blues, with the most enviable depth. The Crusaders’ ageing All Blacks will see a lot of sideline time meaning their young developing players will take a much bigger load in 2023. The defending champs won’t be the worst, but they won’t be the best.

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The worst New Zealand team will be the Highlanders who do not have the roster to compete with the other four. Across the board, they lack quality and two of their three 10s are Freddie Burns and Marty Banks. Signing old, experienced first fives has never worked out well in Super Rugby.

FM: There are a number of All Blacks who call Christchurch home during the Super Rugby season, and there’s a reason for that.

The Crusaders, much like the All Blacks, are expected to win every time they take the field. The decorated history of the franchise expects excellence from every player, and rarely do they disappoint. This year will be no different.

Led by super coach Scott Robertson, the Crusaders are welcoming back a familiar-looking squad this season. They’ll also be boosted by the return of the formerly injured Ethan Blackadder.

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New Zealand rugby fans are in for a treat this year. After a Super Rugby campaign dominated by the Blues and Crusaders last year, there’s every chance that it’ll more competitive across the board in 2023.

But, they can’t all be winners. Someone has to come last out of the New Zealand teams, and this year that’ll be the Highlanders. The Highlanders boast some impressive talent in their forward pack, but their lack of depth in the halves and midfield may challenge them this year. With no Folau Fakatava as a backup nine, Aaron Smith will play an even bigger role for his beloved ‘Landers this season. As for their stocks at first five, the signing of Freddie Burns seems like a bit of a cry for help.

Meanwhile, teams like the Hurricanes are building nicely – with a number of their players coming off a successful Bunnings NPC campaign with the Wellington Lions.

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HB: The Crusaders will be best and worst, I suspect, will be the Highlanders.

I don’t really want to belabour the reasons why, because they’re not entirely of the Highlanders’ making.

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The Blues were an utter embarrassment to New Zealand Rugby (NZR) for so long, that the governing body basically took over the running of the joint and syphoned players in their direction.

The Highlanders – to their absolute credit – play near or at their potential most weeks. It’s just that they don’t possess the talent of the other teams. For the life of me, I don’t see – for instance – how NZR can allow someone like Manaaki Selby-Rickit to transfer to a Chiefs squad that already has three All Blacks locks in it. It’s as if they want the Highlanders to fail.

NT: For me the Crusaders will be the best of the New Zealand sides and will ultimately win another title. The Crusaders do have some gaps to fill with the departures of Pablo Matera, Bryn Hall and George Bridge however appear to have done a job by signing former Crusaders and English international Willie Heinz, whose previous Super Rugby experience and 13 Test caps will be invaluable. Add the previous Super Rugby and European experience of Melani Nanai to the outside backs and whatever weakness left by the departures of Bridge and Hall appear mitigated.

On the other end of the scale, I predict the Hurricanes will struggle in comparison to the others New Zealand sides. For me, their tight five isn’t one that signals dominance and I fear the quality of their set-piece possession will be tested more often than not. Furthermore, the Hurricanes have had 11 players leave the organisation (admittedly some bit-part players), the highest turnover of the New Zealand sides, which bring their actual game cohesion as a unit into question. It will be a tough year for the boys from the NZ capital.

TV: Enforced rest weeks will hinder the Crusaders more than other sides in the competition but even in years gone by, their second- and third-string players have stepped up to the mark. If anything, the Crusaders look better placed to cover any absences throughout the season than in years gone by, and that means they’ll be difficult to stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Highlanders won’t lose too many players throughout the season to rest weeks, which will be great for their continuity, and their long run of injuries over recent seasons has helped them develop some great depth. Consistency will be the name of the game for the Highlanders in 2023 but unfortunately, they still fall short of the other NZ teams when it comes to their overall potential (aside from Moana Pasifika). They’ll likely still do better than last year – a top six finish should be the minimum expected of Clarke Dermody’s men – but won’t quite measure up to their Kiwi rivals.

Which will be the best and worst Australian teams?

BS: The best Australian team could be the Waratahs this year, who have been on the up since Darren Coleman took over. The Brumbies will be strong again but if the Waratahs continue their rise, it will be the year of the Sydney-based club.

The worst would have to be the Force or the Rebels once again. The Perth-based side gets the vote this year.

FM: The Brumbies have been the pick of the Australian Super Rugby teams for a while now, but there will be a changing of the guard this year.

Emerging triumphant out of the Aussie sides will be the Queensland Reds. Some of the Reds’ best players, including James O’Connor and Jordan Petaia, have a point to prove ahead of the World Cup – and I think they’ll thrive. Queensland are also welcoming back 2022 co-captain Liam Wright from a lengthy injury spell. Let’s not forget, the Reds had the best back row in Australian Super Rugby when he was fit and healthy.

But don’t sleep on the Waratahs either – they’ll be very good this year as well.

Out of the five Australian-based franchises, four of them have taken significant strides in the right direction; they’ll be better this year. But the one team who may struggle in Super Rugby Pacific is the Melbourne Rebels. Melbourne will rely on 21-year-old Carter Gordon to steer them to glory this year, and while he’s certainly a player of the future, it might be too soon for the rising star. The Rebels placed 10th last season, and I’d expect them to place in a similar position on the overall standings this year as well.

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HB: I don’t profess to being a great Australian aficionado, but I reckon Brumbies for best and Rebels for worst.

They’re all much of a muchness, to be fair, which is partly why the Wallabies aren’t much chop.

I look through the squads and – on each of the Australian franchise’s best days – I can make a case for them winning. Unfortunately, there are too many other days when they’re barely even adequate.

NT: I am predicting Darren Coleman’s Waratah’s to be the best of the Australian sides as they appear strong across the squad with perhaps only the depth of the lock stocks falling into question, yet with the experience of Jed Holloway and utility Ned Hannigan, the Waratahs will remain able in that department. Coach Coleman will also have a number of strike weapons in his back line including

Wallabies winter tour sensation Mark Nawaqanitawase and the sheer power of Nemani Nadolo makes them a very daunting prospect to contain.

I think the Western Force will be a competitive outfit, but with a new coach in Simon Cron and a number of players exiting the organisation, it will take time for them to be able to notch up wins, week-in, week-out. Despite the arrival of Folau Fainga’a for the season, I predict the Force’s front row will be tested as Greg Holme’s absence will be felt and can’t be replaced by young talent. I expect some ‘schooling’ to take place in 2023. On a positive note, incoming fly-half Hamish Stewart will bring some game management experience and also another dimension in breakdown and support play that will only be welcomed in the west – but it will be a building year for them.

TV: Similar to New Zealand, it’s hard to look past the status quo in Australia – and that means the Brumbies will take the cake. They may not perform the best out of the Australian sides in their national derbies, but they possess the best players for upsetting their NZ opposition and that will go a long way to determining the final standings.

The Western Force will, unfortunately, be bringing up the rare once again. Losing the experience of guys like Jeremy Thrush, Fergus Lee-Warner, Jake McIntyre, Kyle Godwin, Richard Kahui and Byron Ralston would be a massive blow for the best sides in the competition, let alone one that finished ninth on the overall table last year. Simon Cron is a great get in the coaching department while there have been some good purchases made in the off-season, such as Folau Faing’a, Hamish Stewart and Chase Tiatia, but it will likely be another year of rebuilding for the Western Force.

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J
Jon 42 minutes ago
How Maro Itoje terrorised the All Blacks lineout

Yeah England were much smarter, they put their much vaster experience to use in both the scrum (bending/not taking hit) and lineout (Itoje early sacks) law vagaries. Really though, I know what is there, I’m more worried about Englands locks. We only got to see Itoje and Martin, right? Depth allround in the England camp was probably the difference in the series and the drop off when Itoje reached his minutes limit for the season (it was like the plug was pulled from the charger) was up there with keeping Sexton on the park in that quarter final. What happened there? You have a lot of watching hours experience with locks come blindsides Nick, especially with a typical Australian player make up, have you see a six the size of Barrett absolutely dominate the position and his opposition? I can easily see Scott, and even Martin for that matter, moving to the blindside and playing like Tadgh Beirne with the amount of top locks we have coming through to partner Patrick. Still with the English mindset, because despite running the best All Black team I’ve seen in a long time close, they do need to find improvement, and although I thought they had a lot of good performances from their 7’s (over the years), I really like the prospect of Cunningham-South in his 8 spot and Earl on the open. Can you see Martin as mobile enough to take over Lawes? I absolutely loved his aggression when Jordie ran upto him to try and grab the ball. That alone is enough reason for me to try him there.

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