New faces, returning legends and a four-peat roadblock: what's not to love about Super Rugby 2020?
It may still be January, but the 25th season of Super Rugby will kick off later this week and it’s hard not to get excited about what the new year offers.
The Rugby World Cup is over and so too are the careers of many of Super Rugby’s greatest stalwarts.
The Crusaders, who will be seeking their fourth Super Rugby title on the trot, have lost over 1100 worth of Super Rugby caps. They’ve still retained head coach Scott Robertson, who missed out on the All Blacks coaching job, but even the best club in the world will struggle to replace the sheer quantity and quality of experience and brilliance they’ve now lost.
It’s not just the young guns that will make 2020 a great year – it’s also the return of a number of stalwarts of the game.
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Aaron Cruden, who helped the Chiefs to two titles, will again be on the books for his old team this season. Morne Steyn, who went one better than Cruden and won three titles with the Bulls, is also back on deck. Willem Alberts, who last turned out for a Super side in 2015, has signed up for a stint with the Lions while Wallaby James O’Connor is also back in the competition.
With so many comings and goings, what should fans expect to see from the latest iteration of Super Rugby?
The Crusaders won’t achieve the four-peat
No matter which way you look at it, the Crusaders are going to have to do some serious rebuilding this year.
They’ve lost Read, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Owen Franks, Ryan Crotty, Tim Perry, Jordan Taufua, Ben Funnell, Mitchell Hunt and Tim Bateman from last year’s squad – players who would walk into most international squads around the world.
Richie Mo'unga has been #SuperRugby's top first five over the last three years but that's been helped by the incredible pack at the @CrusadersRugby. He won't have that luxury in 2020, writes @TomVinicombe. https://t.co/MpDhMB0lAY
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 15, 2020
They still have plenty of All Blacks on their books in the backline and there are promising up-and-comers that will eventually replace the lost talent in the pack, but it’s evident that 2020’s crop will be a significant step down from what the Crusaders have been able to field for their last three championships.
Contrast their fortunes with the likes of the Chiefs, who’s only significant loss is Brodie Retallick. Last year, the Chiefs managed to stumble into the finals despite going without Retallick, Sam Cane and Damian McKenzie for the majority of the season. The latter two will make a huge difference to their franchise’s campaign, while Cruden’s return will add a bit more experience to the backline. Warren Gatland’s arrival in the Waikato is also a major boon for the team.
Australia’s next World Cup first five will make a statement
Regardless, the Australian franchises are now being forced into replacing their experienced playmakers with young talent.
It’s not exactly the most well-planned cycle, with many of Australia’s potential future first fives all completely devoid of experience even at the Super Rugby level.
Ideally, the young men stepping into the defectors’’ boots would have at least earned spent some time on the paddock last year, but that’s not the situation the likes of the Brumbies and Waratahs find themselves in.
20-year-old Lucas proved a handful for opposition defences in the few matches he played for the Reds in 2019, but that was mainly at fullback. Now, the talented Under 20 star will have to showcase his playmaking skills from closer to the action. Lolesio and Harrison, however, are both uncapped.
The Wallabies’ new head coach, Dave Rennie, will be hoping that one of these young guns can show at least a glimmer of potential at first five, otherwise Australia could be in for another tumultuous World Cup cycle.
Newbie midfielders will make waves across the park
Across all 15 franchises, there’s been an exodus of experienced midfielders.
New Zealand has lost Ryan Crotty, Matt Proctor, Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams; gone from Australia is Samu Kerevi, who was just starting to put out regular world-beating performances; and South Africa have farewelled the likes of Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Lionel Mapoe and JJ Engelbrecht.
Meanwhile, Argentina’s sole franchise haven’t given up any major midfielders but Japan’s Sunwolves have completely new personnel in the middle of the pitch.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of young centres who have stepped up in the last few years who are now more than capable of taking on senior midfield roles.
The Reds’ Jordan Petaia is possibly the most exciting young prospect coming through the ranks and looked experienced beyond his years at 2019’s World Cup. His Super Rugby season was cut short last year but expect him to make a huge impact in Queensland in 2020.
Equally as promising across the ditch is Quinn Tupaea at the Chiefs. He might struggle for game time as the season advances, with a number of more experienced heads available in Hamilton, but the former New Zealand Under 20 representative will earn his debut against the Blues this weekend.
Over in the republic, 21-year-old Wandisile Simelane had a huge Currie Cup for the Lions and will be desperate for some more minutes with South Africa’s best performing Super team from over the last few years.
There’s also a Super Rugby newbie at the Stormers by the name of Jamie Roberts who should draw a fair amount of attention. After representing Cardiff, Racing 92, Harlequins, Bath, Wales, and the British and Irish Lions, Roberts is now testing his body in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition.
The Blues will make the playoffs
‘This will be our year’ seems to have been the Blues’ slogan for the last decade of Super Rugby until about the second round of each year’s competition.
Whilst jaded fans have wisely talked up their chances too much ahead of the 2020 season, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
Sonny Bill Williams, Ma’a Nonu and Melani Nanai are the only major losses from last year – and the former two shared the midfield workload due to their various injuries and ailments.
They’ve recruited smartly in the off-season, bringing in England centre Joe Marchant and All Black Beauden Barrett (although he won’t feature until later in the year) and there’s a fairly settled look to the franchise this year.
Of course, there are still question marks over their pack mobility and efficiency, but this Blues side looks as well prepared as any over the last ten years to actually make a run for some Super Rugby glory.
Expect big things from young flanker Dalton Papalii, who will be striving for an All Blacks jersey later in the season.
If the trio of Stephen Perofeta (who is finally fit), Harry Plummer and Otere Black can guide the team from 10, then things could go very well for the Blues this year – especially if they’re still in the playoff hunt come Barrett’s arrival in April.
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