Predicting where each team will finish in Super Rugby Pacific 2022
The inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific 2022 is just about upon us, with the opening match of the season between the Waratahs and Fijian Drua now just hours away from kick-off.
With that in mind, here is a pre-season prediction of what the final table will look like come the end of the regular season, as well as which team will go the distance in the knockout stages.
Perhaps this is the boldest prediction of the entire competition, but there is plenty of anticipation surrounding the Blues this season, and for good reason.
A year after breaking their title-winning drought by securing the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman trophy, the Blues have recruited strongly and look to be the only team with enough talent and quality to challenge the Crusaders for silverware in 2022.
The acquisition of former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, the return of Beauden Barrett from Japanese club rugby and the presence of All Blacks internationals Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Finlay Christie gives the backline a star-studded look.
Up front, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii and Hoskins Sotutu will combine to give the Blues a powerful loose forward trio, while there are four All Blacks props – Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman – in their front row.
Head coach Leon MacDonald’s decision to sign World Cup-winning ex-All Blacks lock Luke Romano may also prove to be a masterstroke move with last year’s captain Patrick Tuipulotu on sabbatical in Japan.
Factor in the retention of highly-touted young fullback Zarn Sullivan, and the Blues have themselves a well-balanced and dangerous full-strength lineup that has the ability to propel them into a top-two finish at the minimum.
A final against the Crusaders seems the likeliest of conclusions to the campaign, and it would take a gigantic effort to topple the serial champions, especially if the final is in Christchurch, but if there is any team to do it this year, it’s the Blues.
With five titles in the last five years, it’s easy to understand why the Crusaders are once again listed as favourites to take out the first-ever iteration of Super Rugby Pacific.
Head coach Scott Robertson is back at the helm for what will probably be his penultimate season with the franchise, and he has the luxury of having 16 current or former All Blacks in his ranks.
The addition of Los Pumas star Pablo Matera further bolsters the depth and experienced that the Crusaders are laden with, while there are numerous potential All Blacks – such as Quinten Strange, Tom Christie and Tamaiti Williams – present in the squad.
That, combined with their undoubted title-winning pedigree, will have the Crusaders as champions in the pre-season predictions of many other pundits, and that is entirely understandable.
However, in the (possibly misguided) hope that there is some kind of variation in Super Rugby’s recent list of championship winners, a runner-up finish could be on the cards if the Blues live up to expectation and manage to go all the way in 2022.
The early-season absence of star playmaker Richie Mo’unga might also count against the Crusaders in the opening few rounds, but his expected return in round four will only strengthen the Christchurch-based outfit.
Semi-finalists: Chiefs, Highlanders
Outside of the Blues and Crusaders, the Chiefs stand as the best-placed New Zealand team to succeed in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific.
Head coach Clayton McMillan has retained his role after guiding the side to a runner-up placing in Super Rugby Aotearoa last year, forcing the returning Warren Gatland into a newly-created director of rugby position.
The arrival of one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane also gives the squad a standout playmaking option, which is exactly what they needed with Damian McKenzie in Japan on a season-long sabbatical.
Furthermore, their pre-season wins over the Blues, Highlanders and Moana Pasifika – matches in which Ioane, wing Jonah Lowe and No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula all showed good form in – indicates the Chiefs are on the up heading into the new campaign.
There is also plenty to like about the Highlanders, who remain an underrated outfit but have shown how good they can be, as exemplified by last year’s victories over the Blues and Crusaders, as well as their run to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final.
In captain Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava, the Dunedin-based side possess the best one-two halfback punch in the league, and have a nice blend of established stars, experienced veterans and exciting youngsters.
The key for Tony Brown’s side will be to remain consistent throughout the course of the season, something they struggled to do last year.
The Highlanders will also be hoping for better fortunes on the injury front than they did in 2021, but, even if they do have a clean bill of health, it would probably be too big of an ask for them – and the Chiefs – to make the final ahead of the Blues and Crusaders.
Quarter-finalists: Reds, Brumbies, Hurricanes, Waratahs
The fifth New Zealand team predicted to feature in this year’s play-offs, the Hurricanes aren’t expected to enjoy the level of success as their Kiwi counterparts.
Aside from the recruitment of ex-All Blacks forwards Owen Franks (who is battling a long-term Achilles injury) and Dominic Bird, there aren’t many headline acquisitions that have significantly improved the Hurricanes from last year.
As such, the Wellington-based franchise will again be heavily reliant on All Blacks stars Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett, although it will be interesting to see the development of young playmakers Ruben Love and Aidan Morgan.
Former All Blacks wing Julian Savea also looks trim and was in fine form over pre-season, while plenty of onus will be on midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen to return to the form that made him an All Black in 2020 following a quiet 2021 season.
As has been the case for the past two seasons, the Reds and Brumbies will be the shining lights for the Australian teams as both outfits have strong squads bolstered by many Wallabies and are led by top-class coaches in Brad Thorn and Dan McKellar.
Both teams should dominate their domestic rivals and, as they showed last year, are capable of tipping up one or two of their Kiwi counterparts.
It may well be a scramble for the final quarter-final spot, but the Waratahs look to be the best of the rest, even in spite of their horror winless showing last year.
The arrival of former LA Giltinis boss Darren Coleman, who won Major League Rugby at the first time of asking last year, has instilled a sense of optimism in Sydney, as has the return of skipper Michael Hooper from his sabbatical in Japan.
Wallabies rookie Izaia Perese is also primed to build on the breakout season he enjoyed last year, and he could form a barnstorming midfield combination with for Welsh international Jamie Roberts.
9th: Western Force
Bereft of many of the international stars that made up their squad last year, the Western Force may struggle to keep pace with Super Rugby Pacific’s big dogs this season.
After fielding a squad comprised of various different nationalities last year, Tim Sampson’s side are now without Irish great Rob Kearney, ex-Wallabies Tevita Kuridrani and Sitaleki Timani, and Argentine trio Domingo Miotti, Tomas Cubelli and Tomas Lezana.
USA Eagles utility back Marcel Brache, Manu Samoa midfielder Henry Taefu and English wing Jordan Olowofela have also departed, denting the globe-trotting feel that was evident throughout the Force roster in 2021.
However, they have retained past and present Wallabies in the form of Feleti Kaitu’u, Tom Robertson, Greg Holmes and Kyle Godwin, and have even lured lock Izack Rodda back to Australia from French club rugby.
The acquisition of Fijian wing Manasa Mataele from the Crusaders is also a fine pick-up, and he could help form a backline that may feature Wallabies prospects Toni Pulu, Jack McGregor and Byron Ralston, as well as ex-All Blacks midfielder Richard Kahui.
Another former All Black, lock Jeremy Thrush, has also returned for another season to help add some grunt to the forward pack, as has South African loose forward Brynard Stander and Argentine prop Santiago Medrano.
Having that experience is a useful asset to have, but it’s still hard to see the Force finishing ahead of any of the aforementioned teams, meaning they may prove to be the best of the rest.
10th: Fijian Drua
For a team competing in their first season of Super Rugby, it would be a great achievement for the Fijian Drua to even challenge for a play-offs spot, which they very well could do on the basis of their surprise pre-season win over the Rebels last week.
Although it was only a pre-season victory, the result is reflective of how the Drua possess a raft of unheralded talent capable of upsetting the applecart under the guidance of former Wallabies and All Blacks assistant coach Mick Byrne.
Almost all of their squad is homegrown Fijian talent who have represented the Pacific Island country either in test rugby, in the sevens arena or at age-grade level.
However, as is always the case with first-year teams, there will be teething issues that need to be ironed out, especially as the vast majority of their matches will be played away from home.
For that reason, a place in the post-season may be a bridge too far for the Drua in 2022, but it would be unwise to rule them out from picking up a few victories in their debut campaign.
11th: Melbourne Rebels
Probably the most uninspiring of all the Australian teams, the Melbourne Rebels are likely to have a tough time of things in Super Rugby Pacific this year.
First-year head coach Kevin Foote has lost a ton of star power over the off-season, with the biggest deficit being the defection of Wallabies star Marika Koroibete to the Saitama Wild Knights in Japan.
As such, much will be expected of Wallabies quartet Matt To’omua, Reece Hodge, Matt Philip and World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year nominee Andrew Kellaway to act as a source inspiration for their teammates.
Uncapped Wallabies prop Pone Fa’amausili will also be hoping to replicate the form that first caught Dave Rennie’s attention two years ago.
That much is easier said than done, though, and with a squad that pales in comparison to much of the rest of the competition, it might be a long season in store for the Rebels.
12th: Moana Pasifika
It would be successful maiden Super Rugby Pacific campaign for Moana Pasifika if the new expansion franchise pick up just one victory in 2022.
That’s the sort of challenge Aaron Mauger’s side are facing this season, which they will open with a run of eight successive matches against Kiwi opposition with a squad that is half-full of players who have never played at this level before.
Adding to the difficulty of Moana Pasifika’s assignment is the Covid outbreak that has hit their side on the eve of the competition, which has forced the postponement of their season-opener against the Blues.
Their 61-7 pre-season defeat at the hands of the Chiefs a fortnight ago is indicative of where they are currently at, which means ex-Wallabies stars Sekope Kepu and Christian Lealiifano will have big roles to play in steering the team through the season.
The leadership of Manu Samoa veteran Jack Lam is also going to be crucial, while big things are expected of Hawke’s Bay youngsters Lincoln McClutchie and Danny Toala, and former NRL and Brumbies star Solomone Kata.
However, the realistic expectation for Moana Pasifika this season is that it might take a couple of months, maybe longer, for them to find their feet and register their first victory as a Super Rugby franchise.
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