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Picking the Super Rugby Pacific champions at the halfway stage of the season

By RugbyPass
Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett. (Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)

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At the halfway stage of Super Rugby Pacific, the RugbyPass roundtable writers from New Zealand and Australia – Alex McLeod (AM), Jordan King (JK), Nick Turnbull (NT), Ben Smith (BS), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Tom Vinicombe (TV) – review their pre-season predictions and deliver their verdicts for the remainder of the season.

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Have you changed your mind about which team will win Super Rugby Pacific from your pre-season roundtable pick?

AM: I tipped the Blues to trump the Crusaders as champions this year, and I’m staying true to that prediction. Back in February, I wrote that they have the personnel and depth of talent throughout their squad to stand as genuine title contenders, and they have proven that by beating the Crusaders in Christchurch to sit at the summit of the standings. The championship isn’t assured yet, but the Blues have shown they are more than capable of going back-to-back in 2022.

JK: I’m not going to be a prisoner of the moment and will stick by my prediction of the Crusaders taking it out. The Blues, who deserve the praise they’re receiving, are the odds-on favourite to meet them in the final, but experience counts for a lot at the pointy end of the season. The red and black are also yet to read of the same script – whether or not they do may determine if they capture another trophy.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

NT: No. I maintain that the Crusaders will win the Super Rugby Pacific tournament in 2022. This may raise an eyebrow or two considering they have recently been defeated at home by the Blues, something that hasn’t occurred since 2004. The leg injury to Joe Moody could hurt them moving forward, but an area the Crusaders will need to sharpen up in is at halfback. Neither Bryn Hall or Mitch Drummond played particularly well against the Blues. I expect the Crusaders to galvanise on their tour of Australia. This coupled with their experience should see them home.

BS: No. The Blues were my pick and have proved to be one of the top Super Rugby Pacific teams. Knocking off the Crusaders at home has proven their title-winning credentials. Being the best at the halfway point is not going to win the title, however. There is still plenty of work to do.

JO: I’m still confident the Brumbies have what it takes to hoist the Super Rugby Pacific trophy come the end of the season. They are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs, and it will be crucial to their success that they secure a home final. They have the pedigree and talent to beat any side on their day.

TV: No, the Crusaders will still go into every game they play for the rest of the season as favourites – and that includes a likely grand final match-up with the Blues at Eden Park. Truth be told, it’s hard to tell if the Blues’ victory in Christchurch over the weekend has moved the odds in their favour at all, or if it’s simply ignited a fire in the bellies of the Crusaders which will be hard to extinguish when they next meet.

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Have your pre-season roundtable picks for the best and worst Kiwi teams been accurate?

AM: Somewhat so. Both the Blues and Crusaders have lived up to my expectations as the best Kiwi teams, but I let my Highlanders bias blind me into picking the Hurricanes as the worst side from New Zealand. While the Wellingtonians haven’t been particularly flash, they haven’t been as bad as Tony Brown’s men, who have finished their stretch of eight matches against Kiwi opposition with just one win to their name. Let’s hope that changes against the Australian franchises.

JK: As a fan, I’m somewhat glad to say I was wrong in pegging my beloved Hurricanes as the worst of the Kiwi teams (I excluded Moana Pasifika from the conversation). However, they’re still an average side and if anything I’ve been more disappointed with how poorly the Highlanders have been. I didn’t expect them to overachieve the way they did last year, but they’re a shell of the team who expressed themselves in the visually-pleasing manner seen in the first edition of the Trans-Tasman competition. As for the best side, I’m still bullish on the Crusaders being the favourites, but after Friday’s loss they technically had to hand over the maillot jaune to the Blues. All in all, my predictions have been inaccurate yet I don’t feel as if they were.

NT: To a degree, yes. I picked the best to be the Crusaders and the lesser Moana Pasifika. The Crusaders are running second behind the impressive Blues and Moana Pasifika are at the bottom of the table. So reasonably accurate. The Highlanders have been a bit of a disappointment to be honest and it gives me no pleasure in saying that.

BS: The Hurricanes and the Highlanders were my pick for worst Kiwi team which has been accurate, and the Blues were my pick for the best which also has proven true. The Hurricanes completed the 2-0 season sweep over the Highlanders with a one point win in Dunedin so the men from the south have to take the tag as New Zealand’s worst.

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JO: It has been exciting to see the Blues emerge as a genuine challenger to the Crusaders this season. The men in blue have been playing some excellent rugby, built upon a tireless work ethic and the recent form of key squad members, including Beauden Barrett. While the Hurricanes have not been anything special this year, they have been able to pull off some remarkable last-minute wins that have them sitting comfortably on the competition ladder. The Highlanders have fallen far down the pecking order in New Zealand as a result of some frustrating losses.

TV: The Blues stand ahead of the Crusaders at present and unless the unthinkable happens and they drop a game against an Australian side, they’ll likely finish top of the ledger overall. At the other end of the spectrum, I expected the Highlanders to outperform the Hurricanes thanks to “thanks to the raft of players they’ll have back from injury this year”. Unfortunately for the Highlanders, injury issues have again plagued their season. Pari Pari Parkinson, Jona Nareki, Patelesio Tomkinson, Josh Timu, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Ngatungane Punivai, Billy Harmon, Shannon Frizell and Manaaki Selby-Rickit will have all spent plenty of time on the sidelines by the season’s end.

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Have your pre-season roundtable picks for the best and worst Australian teams been accurate?

AM: Absolutely. As anticipated, the Brumbies and Reds are both “lightyears ahead of their fellow Australian sides” and stand as Australia’s best chances of upsetting their Kiwi rivals in the title race. Likewise, the Melbourne Rebels have also lived up to expectation as the worst Australian outfit. In saying that, the Rebels have shown glimpses of improvement in the last four weeks, picking up wins over the Fijian Drua and Western Force while also testing the Reds at AAMI Park last Friday.

JK: It looks like I was wrong about the Waratahs (again, I excluded the two new expansion teams from this) and didn’t look past their lack of experience at intangible stuff like their proud history, resources, etc. Similar to the toss up between the Blues and Crusaders across the ditch, I share similar sentiments to the battle between the Brumbies and Reds (my pick) for top spot. The former are ahead on the table by virtue of more bonus points, but I’m still pledging my allegiance to the Queenslanders. If that’s being inaccurate, then I’m not sure I want to be the antonym.

NT:  Yes, fairly accurate. I picked the Reds and they currently sit one point behind the Brumbies, who I picked to push the Reds. To be honest, you don’t have to be a rugby-Einstein to come to a conclusion that in the Australian conference it was always going to be a two-horse race between those two. However, keep an eye on Darren Coleman and his Waratahs as they are on a good trajectory, but I’m not convinced they have the mettle to disturb the better New Zealand sides in 2022.

BS: I picked the Brumbies to top the Reds, but they have been quite evenly matched with one win at home each. How they fare against the Kiwi teams will separate them.

JO: It is still too close to call at this point in the season who is the best Aussie team between the Reds and the Brumbies with some classic matches played out between the two sides. At this point in the competition, the Reds are best placed to get some important wins against New Zealand sides and make a run to the finals. While the Rebels have improved in recent weeks, it comes as the Kiwi sides go up against the Aussies teams for the final stretch of Super Rugby Pacific. If the Rebels can’t arrest their problems with squad management and put together an inspiring attack plan, they will continue to struggle.

TV: More or less, except the Brumbies have snuck ahead of the Reds. Not many people would have anticipated the Waratahs’ turn of form in 2022, and while they aren’t going to finish ahead of the top Australian sides this year, unless they achieve a couple or miracles in the weeks to come, they’ll be pushing their two traditional rivals next season.

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Have Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua overachieved, underachieved or performed as expected?

AM: At this stage, you’d have to say they’ve both overachieved, especially Moana Pasifika. Nobody gave them a chance at all in pre-season, and their players and coaches went on record saying that their season would be successful if they simply took to the field. Those expectations were blown out of the water when they actually managed to win a game, against the Hurricanes, in just their third match, and they could yet enjoy more success against the Australian teams. By contrast, the Fijian Drua are set for an uphill battle with six straight matches against New Zealand sides, but their third round victory over the Rebels was a significant milestone in the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific.

JK: The fact that both sides managed to pick up a win and have been competitive is an overachievement in my book, especially for Moana Pasifika considering how disrupted the start of their campaign was with Covid. Part of their success can be put down to teams underestimating them, but they still had to hold up their end of the bargain and take their opportunities.

NT: I think both have overachieved. I did not expect either to win a match in the first half of the tournament, to be honest. Who can ever forget Moana Pasifika’s maiden victory against the Hurricanes? Simply brilliant, never-say-die rugby. The Drua also thoroughly deserved their maiden victory over the Melbourne Rebels. Both sides have proved they belong in this tournament moving forward.

BS: Both have exceeded expectations, which is a form of overachievement. The Drua captured their first victory quite quickly over the Rebels and have been competitive in a number of other games, almost chasing down the Reds. Moana Pasifika continue to improve and have also been competitive for large patches of games, although the Chiefs seem to have the wood over them. Both sides need time to get their off-field support in place to fulfil their potential. We are probably three of four seasons away from that.

JO: Of the two, Moana Pasifika has had the tougher run in the competition because of rescheduled games, but they have shown grit and determination. Their win over the Hurricanes proved they belong in the competition. The Fijian Drua started Super Rugby Pacific with a bang, taking them only three games to secure a win in history over a shell-shocked Melbourne Rebels. As the competition has gone on, they have learned some hard lessons about what it takes to play at Super Rugby level. If they can combine their characteristic flair with organised defence and a patient attacking game plan, they may upset some more teams.

TV: Having a first win under their belts for both sides is a great achievement for the two teams, but it’s Moana Pasifika who have perhaps bettered expectations and grown throughout the season to date. You would expect that now that the team’s had plenty of time to bond and form a more cohesive unit, the Australian sides could be caught with their pants down in the backend of the season when they come up against the Pacific Islanders. The Drua, on the other hand, face an uphill battle for the rest of the year, and after seeing the attacking prowess they possessed from as early as the first week of the competition, they’ve perhaps underwhelmed relative to what they looked capable of.

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Which eight teams do you see making the playoffs at this stage of the season?

AM: Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Brumbies, Reds, Highlanders and Waratahs. In that order.

JK: I feel this question is better answered by naming which four teams won’t make the playoffs. Unfortunately, it’ll be the competition newcomers who’ll finish with the worst records. Then I have the Rebels and Force occupying 9th and 10th place. Given where they currently rank and the improbability they get a win over a Kiwi side, I’d put my money on them having their seasons finish early.

NT: Blues, Brumbies, Reds, Crusaders, Chiefs, Waratahs, Hurricanes and Highlanders. I can’t see the Melbourne Rebels or Western Force holding out the Highlanders, who will enjoy the opportunity to play against the Australian sides, and I expect them to be too good for the lesser Australian teams.

BS: It’s easier to the list the teams that won’t make it: Moana Pasifika, Fijian Drua, Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels. That’s how predictable this competition is.

JO: I can see all five New Zealand sides making it through to the top eight, with the Highlanders sneaking past an Australian side. The Brumbies and Reds will fly the flag for the Aussies, and the Waratahs will hold on to that eighth spot.

TV: Funnily enough, it’s going to be the eight original Australasian teams that took the field way back in 1996 for the first season of Super 12: the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders from NZ, and the Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies from Australia. The seven teams currently ranked first to seventh will all make the top eight (although there’ll be some considerable jostling amongst the ranks in the weeks to come), while the Highlanders are set to improve on their one-win, eight-loss start to the season with some easier opposition over the next few rounds of competition.

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